In Iowa Debate, Mild Feuding and No Fireworks

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The six top Democratic presidential candidates had their last chance Tuesday night to throw some punches as they stood on stage together for the final time before their nomination battle officially begins in 20 days.

Defying expectations, however, the gloves largely stayed on as the contenders appeared reluctant to take forceful shots and risk alienating some of their opponents’ supporters -- voters they will need in the long run to have a shot of defeating President Trump.

As a result, caution may have been the most active dynamic in a debate heavy on policy issues — health care, trade, climate change, childcare and international relations— and nearly absent of fireworks despite the high stakes and dwindling days before the first primary voting begins in Iowa on Feb. 3.

In fact, the most contentious clash between the candidates this week came one day before the Des Moines debate when Elizabeth Warren accused Bernie Sanders of privately telling her in 2018 that he didn’t think a woman could beat Trump in 2020 – an apparent effort to rattle her fellow progressive, who the latest polls show is running neck-in-neck with Warren and Joe Biden in the Hawkeye State.

The Massachusetts senator delivered the most memorable line of the night just 24 hours after launching that political grenade at Sanders. She noted that of the candidates on stage, the men had lost 10 races, while the women -- she and Sen. Amy Klobuchar -- had never lost once. Warren followed up by saying she was the only person on stage to defeat a Republican incumbent in the past 30 years. More than just canned feminist zingers, the assertions had the dual purpose of putting Sanders on his heels for a few moments when he struggled to count how long it had been since he defeated a GOP incumbent for office.

It also reminded Democratic voters of widespread criticism in the party that Sanders didn’t sufficiently support Hillary Clinton in 2016 after she won the hard-fought primary against him. After a shaky beginning on foreign policy, the moment clearly boosted Warren’s confidence and she came out swinging later on health care and plans to tax the nation’s wealthiest to pay for a host of government freebies, including “Medicare for All,” free college tuition and preschool for all.

Klobuchar, too, got a boost out of the Warren-Sanders feuding, as it highlighted her winning record in Minnesota, one of the battleground states Democrats aim to capture to deny Trump a second term.

Klobuchar’s clear goal in last night’s debate was to continue carving out that middle ground in the race by casting herself as a younger -- but not too young (see Buttigieg, Pete) -- and even more pragmatic alternative to national front-runner Joe Biden. Once again, the Midwest Democrat presented herself as a candidate who rejects the big-government proposals of Warren and Sanders while still coming up with bold solutions to the nation’s biggest problems. After Warren rattled off her reasons for supporting free college, Klobuchar said that’s not thinking big enough. Instead, she argued, government should try “to connect our education systems with our economy.”

“Where are our job openings, and what do we need? We have over a million openings for home health care workers that we don’t know how to fill in the next 10 years.”

On health care, the issue that dominated the debate, Klobuchar continued to advocate efforts to augment Obamacare, not throw it out. “I think it is much better to build on the Affordable Care Act, and if you want to be practical and progressive at the same time and have a plan and not a pipedream, you have to show how you are going to pay for it,” she said.

Sanders, for his part, needed to emerge from the debate without letting Warren rattle him enough to have a major misfire when it comes to women’s ability to win the White House or other gender issues. The clash gave the Vermont senator a brief stumble when he realized it had been 30 years since he had beaten a Republican incumbent, but he quickly recovered to continue driving home the same themes his loyal followers have come to expect over the last four years: health care as a human right, increasing the minimum wage, ending “endless” wars and saving the planet through the Green New Deal. Sanders has surged to the head of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, vying with Biden for the lead, depending on the poll. He led the marquee Iowa poll for the first time late last week. Warren managed to take him down a peg Tuesday night, but it’s unclear if it will blunt his late momentum.

As he remains competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg continued to play up his youth, D.C.-outsider status, and centrist views as his biggest contrasts to Trump – stark contrasts that he argues will help defeat the president.

“We cannot take the risk with so much on the line of trying the same Washington mindset and political warfare that led us to this point,” he said.

But Buttigieg also did something else in this debate – he used his status as a veteran of the Afghanistan war and knowledge of the Middle East to show how he would approach Iran and the issue of congressional war powers differently than Trump has. The now-former mayor of South Bend, Ind., cast the presidential decision to authorize a strike or send troops to war in highly personal terms. “There are enlisted people I served with barely old enough to remember those votes on the authorization after 9/11, or the war in Iraq,” he said.

But Buttigieg was short on specifics when it comes to exactly how he would manage to do what other recent presidents haven’t: namely, bring home the vast majority of U.S. ground troops in the Middle East and South Asia without empowering a greater threat such as ISIS, Iranian proxies, or both. “We can continue to engage in [Iraq] without sending endless ground troops,” he said, without elaborating.

Biden’s wide lead in the early primary states has dwindled each week and is now down to razor-thin status — less than a one-percentage-point margin in both Iowa and New Hampshire. (The former vice president continues to lead his closest opponent, Sanders, in the national RealClearPolitics average of polls by eight points.) In this last debate before the Iowa caucuses, Biden had to avoid a major pitfall that would crater his candidacy, and he largely succeeded.

But the former vice president is by far the weakest debater in the remaining field of contenders and on Tuesday he delivered another halting performance full of self-corrections and jumbled phrasing, including a long defense of his vote in favor of the Iraq War.

His scripted closing statement was the most powerful, however, as he called for the restoration of “America’s soul,” which he claimed was under attack by Trump, and he argued that another four years of Trump in the White House would be disastrous for the country and “fundamentally” would alter it.

Tom Steyer needed a breakout moment to catapult him into a competitive position in Iowa. It never came.

Instead, the former hedge fund manager continued to set himself up as the “climate change” candidate and the only Democrat on the stage who, as a former businessman, could go toe-to-toe with Trump on the president’s biggest strength, a record-breaking economy. While he agreed with Biden on the need to continue to build on Obamacare, he sided with Sanders and Warren when it came to casting corporate America as the problem and increasing taxes on businesses and the wealthy as the solution.

“That’s what I’m talking about – how do we get government of, by, and for the people? How do we actually break the corporate stranglehold on our government?” he said.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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