On Politics: The Sniping Picks Up

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  • It took a while, but on Thursday Joe Biden — who’s been running for president since April — finally went after Bernie Sanders over his relationship with the Democratic Party, a line of attack that some committed Democrats have been waiting for. With no clear leader in the Iowa caucus race, Biden spoke in an unusually pointed (for him) way about contrasts between himself and his rivals. “I’m a Democrat,” he said, a dig clearly aimed at Sanders. “He says he’s not. He says — you know, he’s not registered as a Democrat, to the best of my knowledge.” Sanders is an independent in Vermont, a state that lacks party registration but where plenty of people identify as Democrats. Sanders caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate but is now seeking to lead a party that he is not technically a member of — a fact that sometimes causes party loyalists to grouse, but that Sanders’s rivals have rarely sought to use for political gain.

  • In confronting Sanders (at an otherwise perfectly friendly ice cream parlor — more on that below from our reporter Katie Glueck), Biden also dusted off an old attack line against Sanders, reminding reporters that the Vermont senator had opposed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Sanders was in the Senate all day at the impeachment trial, but his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, hit back: “Last-minute cheap barbs of desperation aren’t a good look for a candidate who proclaims his desire to unite the party,” he said.

  • Elsewhere on the Iowa campaign trail, Pete Buttigieg started calling out his rivals by name. It’s something he has been loath to do in the race, which has mostly been characterized by civility and an overriding sense of us-against-Trump unity. He suggested Biden represented “the same Washington playbook” that had caused many of the country’s problems, and dinged Sanders for “calling for a kind of politics that says you got to go all the way here or nothing else counts.”

  • Maybe it’s no surprise that the candidates are sniping at the 11th hour, given how tight — and how consequential — the Iowa race appears to be. A Monmouth University poll released this week showed Biden and Sanders in a statistical tie (Biden at 23 percent and Sanders at 21 percent), with Buttigieg (16 percent) and Elizabeth Warren (15 percent) close behind.

  • Democrats who want to link their liberal policy goals with their fierce opposition to President Trump just got new ammunition. Trump announced on Thursday that he would allow states to cap the amount they spend on Medicaid for many poor adults, a move that could significantly decrease the number of people covered by the program while turning back a major provision of the Affordable Care Act.

  • Sanders has made protecting entitlements like Medicaid a hallmark of his candidacy (he just released an ad last week accusing Trump of wanting to cut Social Security), and last week he aggressively attacked Biden for his past support for freezes on entitlement spending. It’s gotten to the point that on Thursday night, when pressed by a reporter, Biden handed over a card full of talking points he had prepared, titled “Bernie False Attack on Social Security.”

  • Senate Republicans are increasingly optimistic that they can wrap up Trump’s impeachment trial on Friday. It would be a big loss for Democrats, but perhaps a logistical relief for the Democratic senators running for president. Amy Klobuchar, Warren and Sanders haven’t loved being stuck in the Senate chamber while their top rivals — Biden and Buttigieg — are out campaigning.

  • Sanders on Thursday picked up the endorsement of the postal workers’ union, a 200,000-member organization that also backed him in 2016. That adds to a growing list of unions that have endorsed him, including National Nurses United and the National Union of Healthcare Workers. Biden has also been endorsed by the International Association of Fire Fighters and a number of national and state-level unions.

  • Still not sure which candidate matches up with some of your views? Our politics quiz could help you figure it all out.

It wasn’t quite Phil Hartman-as-Bill Clinton stopping into McDonald’s for a mid-jog bite, but Biden’s unannounced stop for ice cream at a Dairy Queen in Pella, Iowa, on Thursday turned the line for fast food into a news conference. Care to know more? You’re in luck …

PELLA, Iowa — As Biden laced into Sanders on Thursday afternoon, his attacks came at an incongruous location: a Dairy Queen.

“Peanut butter cup!” came the call from behind the counter, just as Biden noted the “self-evident” contrasts between himself and his rivals.

“Cookie dough!” came the next announcement.

“Who’s the cookie dough?” asked Biden, who had ordered frozen treats for his staff. He offered the same to the small group of reporters — “It’s not like I’m bribing ya” — but, sticking to their ethical standards even in the face of such temptations, the journalists declined, pressing him instead on Social Security, gun control and whether his campaign had indeed tried to forge any alliances with rival candidates.

As the blenders whirred, Biden professed no knowledge of such agreements, but said: “Every campaign I’ve been involved in, in the caucus, everybody’s looking as, O.K., if your guy doesn’t win or your person doesn’t win, who you going to go with?”

Then he turned back to the ice cream.

URBANDALE, Iowa — Far from the rallies and debate stages, the final days before the caucuses have come down to this: a small army of volunteers trudging through snow with clipboards and messenger bags to knock on doors that have been knocked so many times there may as well be fist imprints in the wood.

I tagged along this week with Zeb Beilke-McCallum, 37, a Warren organizer, as he canvassed outside Des Moines. Iowans are famous for choosing their candidates late, so I figured we’d meet a lot of undecided caucusgoers. But most had made up their minds.

“I can tell you I am caucusing for Elizabeth Warren — she’s exactly who I’m caucusing for!” Kelsey Jenn, 30, said breathlessly, dashing after the pit bull who had bounded out of the house to greet his new friends.

“Medicare for all” was one draw, and “I know she stands for teachers — I’m a teacher,” Jenn told me, herding the dog back inside. Bernie Sanders “also has great ideas,” she added, “but she seems to have more of a concrete idea of how to get there.”

Knock. Biden. Knock. Warren. Knock. Yang.

It wasn’t surprising that most people were decided, Beilke-McCallum told me. “A lot of times I’m really just there to reflect back to them what they’ve already figured out for themselves,” he said.

At the next door, we finally met an undecided caucusgoer: Amanda Woodruff, 38, who runs a home day care program and came to the door with four children crowded around her legs.

“I kind of like Mayor Pete,” she said. “I don’t know a lot about Elizabeth. I don’t even know if I’m going to caucus yet, so I just haven’t really decided. I figured this weekend I’d try to decide.”

Warren’s universal child care plan was a draw, she said after Beilke-McCallum mentioned it.

The question-and-answer phase of the impeachment trial came to a close on Thursday, but not before some fireworks.

Chief Justice John Roberts blocked a question from Senator Rand Paul that would have revealed the identity of the C.I.A. whistle-blower whose account helped set off impeachment.

And Alan Dershowitz, a member of Trump’s legal team, stood by his controversial argument that anything a president does to ensure his own re-election is inherently in the public interest — even as he accused the news media of distorting his words.

But all of this commotion could come to a close on Friday. A key Republican senator, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said late Thursday that he would vote to block new witnesses and evidences. It was a strong sign that Republicans have the votes to move toward a quick acquittal, which could happen as early as Friday afternoon.

But Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, suggested that he might use parliamentary maneuvers to delay that vote. “The minority has rights, and we will exercise those rights,” Schumer told reporters on Thursday. But he left it at that.

This is the end of Week One of our reimagined On Politics morning newsletter. We’d welcome your thoughts and suggestions — reach out to us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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