Sanders campaign says it won its fight with CBS over debate

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Hunter Walker
·White House Correspondent
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Candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters rally at Drake University’s Sheslow Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa, before the Democratic presidential debate on Nov. 14, 2015. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

DES MOINES, Iowa — The presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, declared victory before the Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday night, after a standoff with CBS over the forum’s structure.

“We had agreed on opening and closing statements, the timing of those,“ Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, told reporters in the spin room before the debate. "Others attempted to change those. We pushed back on those and ended up prevailing. We’re very happy about that.”

Earlier in the day, Yahoo News reported on a phone call in which top Sanders strategist Mark Longabaugh argued with executives from the network, which hosted the debate, over changes in format. They were proposed by the network after the attacks in Paris on Friday that left more than 100 people dead, and included an increased focus on terrorism, national security and foreign policy.

The phone call included representatives from CBS, the Democratic National Committee and the campaigns of the three Democratic presidential candidates. A staffer for one of the rival campaigns told Yahoo News that Longabaugh got "heated” on the call and objected to the increased focus on foreign policy. Another person who was on the call confirmed this account.

However, in the spin room, Longabaugh told Yahoo News he took issue with the fact the candidates would have had to make opening statements about the attack rather than general remarks about their campaigns.

“There was a suggestion that we were going to change the format that we had agreed to and, at the end of the day, the format basically stayed the same as it was going to be, and that’s it,” Longabaugh said.

Longabaugh also said the campaign was “very comfortable” with the fact the first 20 minutes of the debate would be dominated by foreign policy. That claim contradicts two other accounts of the conversation that were described to Yahoo News.

“Well, I think clearly that first 20 minutes is going to be — because of the events that have happened in Paris — going to be dominated by that subject,” Longabaugh said before the debate. “But as far as I know, you know, CBS has not indicated that that’s going to be the case. But I’m sure that will dominate the first 20 minutes. We’re very comfortable with that.”

In an interview with the New York Times late Friday, Steve Capus, the executive editor of CBS News and executive producer of “CBS Evening News,” said the network would indeed focus the debate on terrorism and foreign policy.

“It is the right time to ask all the related questions that come to mind,” Capus said. “We think we have a game plan to address a lot of the substantive and important topics.”

In the spin room, Longabaugh also criticized the staffer from a rival campaign who had described the call to Yahoo News.

“What’s actually disappointing is that some of the other campaigns, or somebody, has told you what transpired on that call,” he said. “It wasn’t me and it wasn’t the Sanders campaign, but you know, I could give you the blow-by-blow of everything that happened. And I don’t think that’s — I don’t want to operate that way.”

Weaver also chimed in to take a shot at the rival staffer who had talked to Yahoo News.

“It’s childish,” Weaver said.

When the debate began, Sanders was the first candidate invited by moderator John Dickerson to make an opening statement. He briefly discussed the Paris attacks.

“Well, John, let me concur with you and with all Americans who are shocked and disgusted by what we saw in Paris yesterday. Together, leading the world, this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS,” Sanders said.

Sanders then quickly pivoted to discussing two of his core issues: income inequality and campaign finance reform.

“I’m running for president because as I go around this nation, I talk to a lot of people. And what I hear is people concerned that the economy we have is a rigged economy,” Sanders said, adding, “People are working longer hours for lower wages. … Income and wealth goes to the top 1 percent. And then on top of that, we got a corrupt campaign finance system in which millionaires and billionaires are pouring huge sums of money into super-PACs, heavily influencing the political process. What my campaign is about is a political revolution. Millions of people standing up and saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ Our government belongs to all of us, and not just a handful of billionaires.”

This version of the story corrects, from audio, a CBS rush transcript of the debate that misquoted Sen. Bernie Sanders. He said “Together, leading the world, this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS.” He did not say "marvelous.”

(Cover tile photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)