In a move touted by the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a “really big deal”, a key progressive member of Congress endorsed Bernie Sanders for president on Sunday, building on Ocasio-Cortez’s own endorsement and others.

The congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington, a co-chairman of the congressional progressive caucus, told the Washington Post she was endorsing Sanders because “he has a clarity on policy prescriptions that goes right to the heart of what working people need”.

“Really big deal,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive star from New York. “Pramila is a major leader in the House.”

The Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, also a progressive caucus leader, added her approval with a nod to Sanders’ Brooklyn accent: “This is yuge!!!”

The news was excellently timed for Sanders, 78, whose viability as a standard-bearer for the modern Democratic party, which has sought to highlight its youth and diversity in the age of Donald Trump, was challenged this week around a skirmish with fellow candidate Elizabeth Warren.

Campaigning separately in Iowa at the weekend, both candidates sought to dismiss the perception of friction between them following the presidential debate in Iowa, when a CNN microphone caught Warren telling Sanders he made her out to be a liar on national television.

Warren has said Sanders told her in a meeting in 2018 that a woman could not win the presidency in November 2020, a claim Sanders has denied.

“Bernie and I have been friends a long time,” Warren said at a house party in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday, when quizzed by a supporter who said she believed Warren’s side of the story. “We fight for the same issues. That’s all I want to say about that topic because what I truly believe is we’re going to have to pull together.”

In Exeter, New Hampshire, Sanders pledged to come together with other Democrats to back the eventual nominee.

“No matter who wins this hotly contested primary, all of us will unite,” he said.

Any doubts about Sanders’ support in the progressive wing of the party that may have been raised by the debate contretemps were forcefully rebutted by the Jayapal endorsement. The other chair of the progressive caucus, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, endorsed Sanders last week and will be chairing his campaign in the state.

The disintegration of a non-aggression pact between Warren and Sanders – and the resulting online backlash from supporters in both camps – caused handwringing among progressive groups, which urged supporters of the two senators to reserve their fire for centrist rivals.

Sanders is leading Warren in most national opinion polls but both trail former vice-president Joe Biden, a moderate.

Interviews with more than 20 voters who attended the two progressives’ events on Friday and Saturday showed that they largely wanted the candidates to move on.

Sue Foecke, 40, attended the Des Moines house party hosted by Planned Parenthood Action Fund and plans to support Warren. She said a continued focus on the 2018 meeting “doesn’t add anything to the conversation”.

Though Foecke said she did not have a backup candidate because Warren should be “viable” in Iowa and able to win delegates, some at Warren’s events named Sanders as their second choice.

“It breaks my heart,” said Kathy Staub, 62, a Sanders backer who is involved in local politics in Manchester, of the controversy between the two candidates.

Staub said she liked both candidates but contrasted Sanders’ history as a grassroots organizer with Warren’s more recent emergence as a leading progressive with “policy wonk” plans.

Asked by a supporter about Democratic infighting, Sanders did not mention Warren or any other candidate and suggested disputes were overblown by news media that “often wants and exaggerates conflict”.

Warren repeatedly demurred when she was asked by reporters about the scuffle, responding: “I don’t have anything else to say on this.”

Sanders’ campaign has zeroed in on Biden. It criticized his 2002 vote for the Iraq war, which Sanders opposed, and accused him of supporting cutting social security benefits for the elderly in the past, which Biden denied. The former vice-president’s campaign accused Sanders staffers of lying.

Contributor

Tom McCarthy and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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