DES MOINES, Iowa — Ahead of the final debate before the Iowa Democratic caucuses, a long-simmering question within the party was thrust to the forefront: Can a woman defeat President Donald Trump?

It started Monday when a CNN report outlined a 2018 one-on-one meeting between Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in which he allegedly told her that a female candidate could not defeat Trump in November. Warren later confirmed the report, saying such a conversation had taken place.

Sanders has heatedly denied making that statement during the discussion at Warren’s home in Washington, contending that he merely outlined what he said would be Trump’s efforts to defeat another female candidate.

The dispute was a remarkably personal and public disagreement between two candidates who had worked as allies throughout the campaign. It was also unavoidable that it would explode, as it played on the still-raw wounds of the 2016 campaign and continued consternation by some sympathetic to Hillary Clinton that Sanders and his backers were insufficiently supportive of her in that contest.

Less than three weeks before the first voting takes place in Iowa, a worry that voters long have contended with broke into the open: With Democrats so eager to defeat a president they see as a racist, sexist bully, is the safest bet to defeat him a man?

Former vice president Joe Biden elliptically referred to that calculation earlier this month when he noted that Clinton faced “unfair” sexism during her campaign.

“That’s not going to happen with me,” Biden said.

The sharp break in recollections by Sanders and Warren were particularly unnerving for the liberal wing of the party, fearful that divisions between the two most leftward candidates would usher in a moderate nominee.

“Too much is at stake right now for mutual destruction,” said Rebecca Katz, a liberal strategist who plans to vote for Warren but also likes Sanders. “Our eyes need to be on the prize.”

Others underscored the personal impact of the disputed words.

“Yes, many people have told me a woman can’t win in 2020,” tweeted author and columnist Connie Schultz, who is married to Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who considered a presidential run. “This is fear speaking, & it has sparked meaningful conversations. But a woman hears this differently when she is the one who is running. It feels personal because it is. Can we please not lose sight of this difference?”

The conflict has effectively amplified what has been an impassioned, if somewhat below radar, conversation in Democratic circles. A year ago, a record number of women were sworn into Congress. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the first female House speaker, was back in power. And activists were excited about a new generation of women joining the presidential contest.

Since then, though, two men — Sanders and Biden — have ascended to the top of the polls, joined in some of them by former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Several female candidates failed to gain traction and ended their campaigns, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who made an explicit appeal on gender issues. These trends have been concerning to many Democratic women, who feel their party is not giving all candidates a fair shake.

“Almost everyone running represents someone that hasn’t been elected before,” said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at Emily’s List. “We’re hanging that on the women.”

Sanders and Warren have shown little appetite to continue their extraordinary dispute; neither candidate broke from their preparations for Tuesday’s debate to elaborate on their Monday comments.

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