tug of war

noun
1.
an athletic contest between two teams at opposite ends of a rope, each team trying to drag the other over a line.
2.
a hard-fought, critical struggle for supremacy.

Origin:
1670–80 for def 2; 1875–80 for def 1

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Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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American Heritage
Idioms & Phrases

tug of war

A struggle for supremacy, as in There's a constant political tug of war between those who favor giving more power to the states and those who want a strong federal government. Although there is an athletic contest also so named, in which participants holding either end of a rope try to pull each other across a dividing line, the present usage, first recorded in 1677, predates it by about two centuries. The noun tug itself means "a strenuous contest between two sides," and war refers to fighting, either physical or figurative.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
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Example sentences
Financial markets will remain watchful and the tug of war with politicians promises to liven up or gradually die down.
The issues can generate years of courtroom fighting and a tug of war over every dollar.
Events include hay-baling, antique tractor races and east-west tug of war.
And then the pressure mounts and the central structure is that three-way tug of war.
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