What the leading 2020 candidates need to do in tonight's Democratic debate

What the leading 2020 candidates need to do in tonight's Democratic debate
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The final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses will take place in Des Moines on Tuesday evening. 

Polls show a close four-way race in the Hawkeye State between former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Trump rails against impeachment in speech to Texas farmers Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersNYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Trump rails against impeachment in speech to Texas farmers Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina MORE (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenNYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Trump rails against impeachment in speech to Texas farmers Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina MORE (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBiden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina Sanders says gender 'still an obstacle' for female politicians Sanders v. Warren is just for insiders MORE (D). 

Tuesday’s debate will also have the fewest candidates in any debate so far. Only Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharNYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Sanders v. Warren is just for insiders Buttigieg to attend MLK Day event in South Carolina after facing criticism MORE (D-Minn.) and businessman Tom SteyerTom Fahr SteyerBiden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina Buttigieg to attend MLK Day event in South Carolina after facing criticism Poll: Sanders holds 5-point lead over Buttigieg in New Hampshire MORE will join the top four.

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What do each of the candidates need to do? 

 

Bernie Sanders 

Democratic politics is in uproar over new tensions between Sanders and Warren. How the Vermont senator handles this will likely be the most closely watched aspect of Tuesday’s debate. 

Two specific things are at issue.  

First, a script given to Sanders volunteers said Warren’s support was effectively limited to highly educated liberals. Second, and more explosively, a CNN report Monday — assumed to emanate from the Warren camp — asserted that Sanders told Warren during a private December 2018 conversation that a woman could not win the presidency. 

Sanders vigorously denied this account of their conversation, calling it “ludicrous.” But, deepening the furor, Warren released a statement late Monday asserting that he had indeed made such a comment.  

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In Warren's version of the conversation, "Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed."

That sets the stage for fireworks on Tuesday night. But some progressives worry that the two senators could damage each other and indirectly aid more-centrist candidates like Biden and Buttigieg.

That aside, Sanders is a good debater who is adept at staying on-message. He is also in a strong position in Iowa, where he topped the respected Des Moines Register poll in recent days. 

But the deepening row with Warren is exacerbating the ill-feeling that lingers from his 2016 campaign against eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Sanders v. Warren is just for insiders Alan Dershowitz: Argument president cannot be impeached for abusing power a 'strong one' MORE.  

At the debate, he can be expected to face questions about his capacity to unify the party. Does he have a persuasive answer? 

 

Joe Biden 

For Biden, one major thing has changed since the last time Democrats debated: Foreign policy has been thrust into the center of the news agenda by the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. 

For Biden, that means Iraq, too, is back in the spotlight — specifically, his 2002 Senate vote to give then-President George W. Bush authority to use force in Iraq, which cleared the way for the U.S. invasion the following year. 

Biden has come under particularly strong attack from Sanders, who voted the opposite way. But he will be expected to come into the debate with some strategy to counterpunch on the issue.

The former vice president is in a peculiar position in that he is the clear national front-runner but is not necessarily expected to win Iowa, where more left-leaning candidates have a history of doing well.

That being so, if Biden avoids gaffes or the kind of meandering performances that have dogged him at previous debates, it will be a solid night for him. 

 

Elizabeth Warren 

What happens between her and Sanders? 

That’s the big question for Warren as the controversy over Sanders’s alleged comments about a woman’s chances of winning the presidency rumbles on.

But the broader question is whether Warren can turn the controversy to her advantage and give herself the strongest chance possible of besting Sanders in the Feb. 3 caucuses. 

Warren has fallen from her polling peaks, but she still very much has a shot of victory in Iowa, where her on-the-ground organization is extensive and her abilities on the stump could stand her in good stead.

Recently, Warren supporters have been pushing the idea that she is the best candidate to unify the party. 

Can she make that argument seem plausible amid the current furor? If so, she could yet slingshot her way past Sanders. 

 

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Pete Buttigieg 

The Warren-Sanders tensions could aid Buttigieg, who is fond of portraying himself as above the fray and the standard-bearer of a new generation. 

He could do with a boost. His standing in opinion polls in Iowa surged in October and November but has softened since then.  

Questions continue to be raised about his inability to pick up any significant black support. Although this is not a big deal in heavily white Iowa specifically, it raises questions in Democrats’ minds about his overall capacity to win the nomination. 

An ideal night on the debate stage for Buttigieg would involve him gliding above a Warren-Sanders fight and, ideally, proving himself a sharper advocate for moderate centrism than Biden. 

The problem for the former South Bend mayor is that this scenario depends almost entirely upon factors outside his control.

 

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Amy Klobuchar 

Klobuchar could also potentially benefit from a fight among the biggest names in the field, especially if Biden and Buttigieg are dragged into the melee.

The conundrum is that she has acquitted herself well in previous debates without really achieving lift-off in the race. 

A new Monmouth University poll of Iowa on Monday gave Klobuchar 8 percent support — up from 5 percent since November, but still only half the support of the bigger-name candidates.

A huge moment on Tuesday for Klobuchar could — perhaps — change that. But it is still difficult to see how she vaults from her current position into serious contention. 

Still, it is likely a do-or-die moment for Klobuchar, who needs to outperform in Iowa if her campaign is to have any real shot.

 

Tom Steyer 

Steyer caused some serious ripples last week when Fox News polls in Nevada and South Carolina — the third and fourth states to vote — showed him with 12 percent and 15 percent support, respectively. 

Steyer’s strength in those states is assumed to come from his extensive television advertising. 

The billionaire has a strong history of environmental activism, and questions on that topic might allow him to shine. 

But how Steyer can overcome the skepticism of Democrats who see him — along with former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergTrump slams Bloomberg over comments on man who shot Texas gunman Bloomberg: 'My story might have turned out very differently if I had been black' Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements MORE — as a rich candidate trying to buy the nomination remains unknown.