Biden and Sanders Spar on Health Care as Virus Dominates Debate

Indeed, Mr. Sanders repeatedly forced Mr. Biden onto the defensive, leading the former vice president to play down or misstate portions of his own record. Challenged by Mr. Sanders for his role championing bankruptcy reform in the early 2000s, Mr. Biden said he did not help write the legislation and “made it clear to the industry that I did not like the bill” — though Mr. Biden was among its most vocal Democratic supporters.

Pressed by Mr. Sanders about his past comments in the Senate suggesting it could be necessary to rein in Social Security and other popular entitlement programs, Mr. Biden gave a halting series of answers that prompted Mr. Sanders to urge him to “be straight with the American people.”

“Joe, you just contradicted yourself,” Mr. Sanders jumped in. “One minute you say, ‘I was not on the floor.’ The next minute you say, ‘Well, yes, there was a reason why I was worried about the deficit.’”

Mr. Biden confronted Mr. Sanders, too, with some of his own past votes, including his opposition to some gun-control legislation.

But even as they feuded, the candidates stopped well short of the kind of scorched-earth attacks that have characterized the climactic debates in past nomination fights, including both the Democratic and Republican primary campaigns in 2016.

After one extended attack on him, Mr. Biden good-naturedly noted that he had tried to give Mr. Sanders “credit for some things” but that he was “making it harder for me,” prompting the Vermont senator to smile. Both candidates said they would support and campaign for the other in the general election.

“If I lose this thing, Joe wins,” Mr. Sanders. said. “Joe, I’ll be there for you.”

And Mr. Biden was not shy about defending other elements of his record from his liberal rival: When Mr. Sanders dismissed the 2008 bailout of the financial sector as a gift to Wall Street executives, Mr. Biden chided him and argued that if the banks had not been stabilized the country would have plunged into “a great depression.”

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