Sanders blasts Biden over trade, gay rights as new Democratic contests loom

(Reuters) – Bernie Sanders launched a full-throated attack against Joe Biden on Friday, assailing his Democratic presidential rival over his record on trade, abortion, gay rights and Social Security, as the pair faced a slew of crucial nominating contests next week.

FILE PHOTO: Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden brush hands as they have an exchange in the tenth Democratic 2020 presidential debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S. February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Sanders, until recently the front-runner in the party’s race to face Republican President Donald Trump in November, now trails in delegates and is desperate to regain momentum after Biden’s strong Super Tuesday showing this week.

At a hastily arranged news conference in Phoenix, Sanders, a U.S. Senator from Vermont, dug deep into Biden’s 40-year record. He criticized Biden for having opposed the rights of gay people to serve in the U.S. military and for voting against federal funding for abortions, stances the former vice president has since rejected.

“I was there on the right side of history, and my friend Joe Biden was not,” Sanders said.

Sanders lambasted Biden for supporting trade deals he said had been “a disaster for Michigan” and accused Biden of trying in the past to cut Social Security, the government-run pension and disability program.

Biden, who denies ever advocating cuts to Social Security, snapped back in a tweet on Friday: “Get real, Bernie. The only person who’s going to cut Social Security if he’s elected is Donald Trump. Maybe you should spend your time attacking him.”

The exchange reflects mounting tension between the two White House hopefuls in what has become a tight two-way race since U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ended their White House bids after the Super Tuesday primaries.

Sanders, 78, said he would support Biden, 77, if he becomes the Democratic nominee but insisted that only he, not Biden, could “energize the American people” enough to beat Trump.

Warren’s exit meant that what had been hailed as the most diverse field of candidates in U.S. history narrowed to a race for the nomination between two white, septuagenarian men. Tulsi Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii with virtually no chance of winning, is the only other remaining Democratic candidate.

On Friday, the Democratic National Committee, which oversees the party’s presidential debates, released new qualifying thresholds for the next debate in Arizona on Mar. 15. Candidates will need at least 20% of delegates awarded so far, essentially excluding Gabbard, who has won less than 1 percent.

Biden’s Super Tuesday turnaround benefited as the Democratic Party establishment mobilized to try and stop Sanders, with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota dropping out of the race and endorsing Biden.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois are both expected to soon announce endorsements of Biden, according to a source familiar with the matter.

A big win for Biden in delegate-rich Michigan on Tuesday would deal another major blow to Sanders’ hopes of becoming the Democratic nominee. Four other states will hold primaries on Tuesday: Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri and Washington state. North Dakota will hold caucuses.

Reporting by Tim Reid, Simon Lewis and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis

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