The Democratic presidential candidates took part Tuesday in the last debate before the Iowa caucuses in just less than three weeks.
The field was the smallest yet, with just six candidates qualifying in the fast-winnowing field. Below are some winners and losers.
Warrens sly attack on Sanders: The big question going into the debate was just how Elizabeth Warren would handle the conspicuously timed story that Bernie Sanders told her a woman couldnt be elected president. And she handled it obliquely. Warren de-escalated a little bit and said she wasnt there to fight with Bernie despite standing by the claim on Monday but then she proceeded to offer an alternative and thinly veiled case against Sanders as the Democratic nominee.
She said there was a real danger in Democrats picking a candidate who cant pull our party together or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency. She said, We need a candidate who will excite all parts of the Democratic Party, bring everyone in. She said she was the only candidate on stage to beat an incumbent Republican in the last 30 years. In case it wasnt clear, all of that pointed at Sanders, who is the most liberal, unapologetic candidate in the race. He was also the last candidate on stage to defeat an incumbent Republican 30 years ago. Sanders soon noted this fact, and Warren argued her math was correct (her semantics were debatable). It was a good way to continue drawing contrasts while perhaps avoiding inflaming the most sensitive tensions. Well see how she follows it up, though. This could be a minefield as well.
Sanderss response: To the extent that people care about whether Sanders actually said what Warren said he did, he also had a strong response. He flatly denied the claim. He noted that he said a woman could win decades ago. He said the back-and-forth is what Donald Trump and maybe some other media want. He said, I deferred, in fact, to Sen. Warren when it came to the 2016 presidential campaign, in which Warren ultimately opted not to run. This is something of a zero-sum game, given Sanders and Warren are largely fighting over the same voters, but neither fumbled a very tough topic.
Klobuchar on health care: Medicare-for-all has come up so much in these debates that bringing it up often elicits groans from people who cover these things. Little of it seems new anymore. But Klobuchar carved out her niche on it Tuesday night. This debate isnt real, she said. I was in Vegas the other day, and someone said dont put your chips on a number on the wheel that isnt even on the wheel. Thats the problem. Over two thirds of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate are not on the bill that [Sanders] and Sen. Warren are on.”
Klobuchar then went a step further, pointing to concrete things shes done and will do, including on drug importation and a bipartisan bill on lowering drug prices. and she pointed to 137 things shes said she can do in the first 100 days as president without Congress. Medicare-for-all has fallen out of favor in recent weeks and months, and to the extent Democratic voters are out of love with it, she made a strong play for the substantial alternative mantle that she, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden have been fighting over.
Pete Buttigieg: For arguably the first time on one of these debate stages, the former South Bend mayor was something of a bystander who didnt really add much. He hit many of the same notes he has in previous debates, including by criticizing Medicare-for-all for being unrealistic and knocking a Washington mentality. He at one point emphasized the national debt and deficit, which one wonders is a huge priority for Democratic voters right now. Iowa is so important for Buttigieg, because its such a good constituency for him. He wasnt bad Tuesday, but it may not help him address some of his arrested momentum.
Democrats clarity on foreign policy: With tensions in Iran and controversy over President Trumps decision to kill Qasem Soleimani big in the news, Democrats had a chance to define their party on the issue. And the debate began on that subject, with the candidates talking at some length. What we instead got was a lot of general talk about taking out combat troops but leaving in other troops who would be tasked with other missions. They criticized Trump for not having authorization to attack an Iran. It seemed like a moment in which the Democratic Party could define itself on this issue, but there wasnt much of that on Tuesday night. Instead, it was a lot of Goldilocks-ing of troop numbers each one assuring that he or she would keep just the right amount in the Middle East.
The Bloomberg campaigns live tweets: One candidate not on stage on Tuesday night was former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. So to draw attention, his campaign instead fired off a bunch of deliberately bogus #DebateFacs. A sampling:
During the 1996 primaries, Mike Tyson bit off part of Pat Buchanans ear. #DebateFacts#DemDebate
Mike has eaten clams casino for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for the past 30 years. #BloombergFacts#DemDebate
For participating in the 1984 debates, Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan each received a $25 Cracker Barrel gift certificate. #DebateFacts#DemDebate
To participate in tonights debate, candidates had to: Meet a polling and donor threshold OR Have solved at least one cold case murder in the last six months #DebateFacts#DemDebate
To participate in tonights debate, candidates had to:
Meet a polling and donor threshold
Have solved at least one cold case murder in the last six months#DebateFacts#DemDebate
— Team Bloomberg (@Mike2020) January 15, 2020
There is a good way to try to grab a chunk of the spotlight. This just felt frivolous and weird.
In the middle
Joe Biden: Biden looks like a decent bet to win in Iowa despite some not-so-strong debate performances, so maybe he didnt need a big one on Tuesday. But he was just okay. He connected on a personal level by talking about his family history and avoided major stumbles. He also pointed out that things other candidates are talking about on Iraq and Iran, like pulling troops out and seeking authorization for the use of military force, he advocated in the Obama administration. But he also occasionally seemed to struggle for words and for some reason again cut his answers short, citing the time constraints.