INDIANOLA, Iowa — The race for the Democratic nomination burst into a multifront flurry of attacks and counterattacks on Sunday, as the largely issue-driven contest veered personal just two weeks before the first vote.

The aggression came from multiple candidates on multiple fronts, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former vice president Joe Biden sparring about Social Security while Sanders aides excoriated Biden for his record on race.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) criticized Mike Bloomberg for postponing the release of his financial disclosure statements, saying that the billionaire and former New York mayor is “trying to skip the ‘democracy’ part of the election” and that voters won’t know of potential financial entanglements until after Super Tuesday.

It is all unfolding in the midst of a confrontation between Sanders and Warren over gender and electability, which continued to play out Sunday, when Sanders said he believed gender is an obstacle for any female presidential candidate.

With only three weeks to the Iowa caucus, a feud between long-time progressive allies changed the tone of the race. (The Washington Post)

The pent-up feuds are unspooling at an unpredictable moment, with a quartet of candidates essentially tied in Iowa and trying to mobilize two of the most energized portions of the Democratic electorate: suburban women and black voters.

These dynamics are playing out in multiple early-voting states, including in Iowa, where some 60 percent of likely caucus-goers are still undecided, and South Carolina, with its heavily black population and a Feb. 29 primary, in which polls show Biden out ahead.

“There’s still such a large group of undecideds, and everyone’s goal is to sway the undecideds into their camp,” said Tameika Isaac Devine, the influential mayor pro tem of Columbia, S.C. “I don’t think anybody would necessarily think it’s desperation time yet, but there’s a strong sense of urgency.”

It’s unclear how these aggressive attacks will play in a contest where candidates who launch negative attacks are often penalized in the polls.

One of the most fraught areas of debate has been over the role that gender should play as voters consider who would be best-positioned to defeat President Trump. Warren has said Sanders told her in a private meeting in 2018 that a woman could not win, a charge that Sanders denied. After a heated exchange on the debate stage last week, in which he continued to contradict her account, Warren approached Sanders, didn’t take his outstretched hand, and said, “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

Asked on Sunday if he thought gender was an obstacle for female candidates, Sanders replied, “The answer is yes.”

“But I think everybody has their own sets of problems,” he said in an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio. “I’m 78 years of age. That’s a problem. . . . If you’re looking at Buttigieg, he’s a young guy, people will say, ‘Well, he’s too young to be president. You look at this one, she’s a woman.’ So everybody, you know, brings some negatives.”

“I would just hope very much that the American people look at the totality of a candidate,” he said. “Not at their gender, not at their sexuality, not at their age. But at everything. Nobody is perfect. There ain’t no perfect candidate out there.”

Warren declined to engage in any further debate on the subject. When asked in Des Moines whether being a woman is a political obstacle she said, “I have no further comment on this.”

“I have been friends with Bernie for a long time,” she said. “We work together on many, many issues. And that’s all I’m going to say on this.”

Compared with the 2016 Republican primary, when Trump mocked the appearance of his opponents and their wives and was ridiculed about the size of his hands, this most recent Democratic contest has been mild. Much of the discussion so far has focused on health-care policy, troop levels in the Middle East and immigration.

But underlying most of the debate of late is a question of how Trump would use his politics of personal destruction against the eventual nominee, and which Democrat is most equipped to handle that. Sanders has said Trump would launch sexist attacks that could prove effective against Warren. He has also said that Biden has too much “baggage” that the president could weaponize.

Biden, meanwhile, has said that the positions held by Sanders, a democratic socialist, would be used by Trump to defeat him as presidential nominee and could also hurt Democrats in down-
ballot races.

Biden has grown increasingly agitated over the tone Sanders had taken with him recently, and had been simmering over a video his rival’s campaign was pushing that suggested Biden wanted to cut Social Security.

In an indication that the attacks were resonating, a voter here on Saturday pressed Biden about his position. Biden initially hesitated to name Sanders, saying that his campaign advisers would probably urge him not to challenge his rival over a video that his campaign had been circulating online.

“It’s simply a lie,” Biden said of a video that showed him lauding Paul D. Ryan for wanting to cut Social Security. “This is a doctored tape. And I think it’s beneath [Sanders]. And I’m looking for his campaign to come forward and disown it. But they haven’t done it yet.”

The video did not appear to have been “doctored” — which Biden twice claimed — but it had taken his comments out of context. Biden’s campaign has said that he was mocking, not lauding, Ryan’s position.

Still, there are other videos of Biden that show him expressing an openness to considering changes to entitlement programs.

When Biden was asked during his 2008 presidential campaign whether he would consider changing the cost-of-living increases or the age of eligibility for Medicare and Social Security, he said “absolutely.”

“You have to,” he said on NBC News’s Meet the Press. “It’s — one of the things that my, you know, the political advisers say to me is, ‘Whoa, don’t touch that third [rail]’ — look, the American people aren’t stupid. It’s a real simple proposition. . . . You’ve got to put all of it on the table.”

Sanders on Sunday acknowledged that the video one of his aides promoted should have shown fuller context of Biden’s remarks, but he insisted Biden’s record deserves to be scrutinized.

“I think anyone who looks at the vice president’s record understands that time after time after time, Joe has talked about the need to cut Social Security,” Sanders said in response to a question from The Washington Post as he left a radio interview in New Hampshire. “I don’t think that that is disputable.”

Asked to respond, Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates called Biden “a champion of Social Security” and pointed to legislative scorecards when Biden was a senator from Delaware. One group, the Alliance for Retired Americans, listed him as having a 96 percent lifetime score for issues that impact retirees in 2008, his last year as a senator.

Warren has been more subtle, not mentioning her campaign rivals directly. But over the weekend, she also emphasized her proposal to increase Social Security payments.

She was far more direct in criticizing Bloomberg, who has launched an unusual campaign that avoids the first four states and is instead premised on a fractured field in which his personal wealth can give him an advantage.

“We’ve got billionaires who think they can just buy an election,” Warren said. “He’s decided to skip the ‘democracy’ part of the election. He’s not coming to places like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada and meeting people. Instead, it’s all going to be set up for his TV ads, running his TV ads, and making it work.”

She also ridiculed him for having been granted an extension until March 20 to file federal forms required of all presidential candidates that would provide a picture of his personal finances.

“Think about this: If he has entanglements with China, serious conflicts of interest, business interests in other parts of the world or other corporations,” she said, “when are we going to know about that? Not until after Super Tuesday. That is not how democracy is supposed to work, and we need to shut that down.”

Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have generally avoided squabbles even amid the escalating intensity among the other candidates.

“Now’s the time for a closing argument,” Buttigieg told reporters over the weekend in Harlan, Iowa. “Mine is going to be about not why I think I have the best policy, but why I’ll be the right nominee to take on and defeat Donald Trump — and why I’ve focused on bringing together not just our party, but our country when the time comes.”

The growing friction played out as the leading candidates descended on South Carolina for church services and speeches that will be delivered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, part of a frenetic battle for the support of black voters.

Buttigieg spent Saturday scrambling to place the King holiday event on his schedule, and he faced some blunt criticism about why it wasn’t on his calendar in the first place.

Nina Turner, a national co-chair of the Sanders campaign, has tried to poke holes in the argument that Biden is the best option for African Americans.

In an op-ed in the State newspaper in Columbia, Turner, who is black, excoriated Biden’s legislative record, saying he’d buddied up to segregationist senators, worked with right-wing Republicans to pass legislation detrimental to black communities and spread the black-woman-welfare-queen stereotype.

“Will our community side with former vice president Joe Biden, who has repeatedly betrayed black voters to side with Republican lawmakers and undermine our progress?’ Turner wrote. “Or will we stand with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and a movement that has been fighting for racial and economic justice since the civil rights era?”

The op-ed sparked a backlash both from Biden supporters and from those who worry that intraparty stone-throwing gives Trump an easier path to reelection.

Bernice Scott, the influential former councilwoman from Richland County, S.C., who originally endorsed Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and then, after Harris’s departure, Biden, defended the former vice president in her own editorial in the State. It was headlined “African Americans trust and support Joe Biden — and Bernie Sanders’ dirty tactics won’t change that.”

“I’m disappointed to see that Sen. Bernie Sanders and his campaign have taken their eyes off the ball,” Scott wrote. “Instead of taking the fight to President Donald Trump, they have turned to tearing down their own.”

Later in the day, Sanders also returned to warmer words about Biden.

Asked why, if he disagreed so strongly with Biden’s record on Social Security, the former vice president was so popular with seniors, he paused.

“You know why? I’ll tell you why. Because Joe is a nice guy. Okay? He is a decent person. He’s a friend of mine,” Sanders said. “We’re not going to make personal attacks on Joe Biden. But I think the records shows that Joe’s history in the Senate and my record in Congress are very different.”

Annie Linskey and Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.