Five takeaways from the Democratic debate

Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Warren, Brown voice support for controversial Biden budget office pick Biden's economic team gets mixed reviews from Senate Republicans MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Overnight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Biden faces new Iran challenges after nuclear scientist killed MORE (I-Vt.) sparred in the final Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday night.

The debate, which featured six candidates battling for support in the Hawkeye State, highlighted some rising tensions between the progressive heavyweights in the race.

The event in Des Moines also included muted performances from the more moderate candidates in the field, such as former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegJuan Williams: Clyburn is my choice as politician of the year 'Biff is president': Michael J. Fox says Trump has played on 'every worst instinct in mankind' Buttigieg: Denying Biden intelligence briefings is about protecting Trump's 'ego' MORE.


Here are five takeaways from the debate.

A strong night for Warren

Warren came into the debate amid a furor with Sanders, and she got the better of their exchanges.

The central issue is whether or not Sanders told Warren during a private conversation in December 2018 that a woman could not win the presidency. Warren says he did. Sanders emphatically denies it.

Onstage on Tuesday, Warren did not back down on the point but she also used it to segue into a broader defense of the electability of female candidates. She cited her own record and that of the only other woman on the stage, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE (D-Minn.).

“Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections,” Warren said. “The only people on this stage who have won every single election they’ve been in are the women.”

It was a powerful moment, encompassing her schism with Sanders, an appeal to female voters and a rebuttal to those who question her purported electability — all within a couple of sentences.


A lot of post-debate coverage was consumed with speculation about what she and Sanders said to each other at the end of the debate, when they were spotted in a seemingly tense moment onstage in front of businessman Tom SteyerTom SteyerBiden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far Late donor surges push election spending projections to new heights New voters surge to the polls MORE that ended without a handshake.

During the event Tuesday night, the Massachusetts senator was generally back to the sharp performances that characterized her early debates this cycle.

She was assertive on health care and child care but also on foreign policy, which was the first topic of the evening and is not usually seen as a particular strength for her.

The full electoral implications of the spat with Sanders cannot be properly evaluated just yet, but Warren was the standout candidate on Tuesday.

No disaster for Sanders

Warren might have bested Sanders in the night’s most contentious exchange but the debate was far from disastrous for the Vermont senator.

For a start, Sanders continues to deny he made the observation that Warren attributes to him.

Sanders asserted that he had “stayed back” in 2016 to see whether Warren would run instead and that it was “incomprehensible” that he would believe a woman could not win the White House.

The vigor of Sanders’s pushback will be enough to satisfy his supporters, many of whom are furious at Warren for what they see as an underhand effort to smear him.

Sanders’s skills as a debater can easily be underrated. 

He vigorously challenged former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Senate approves two energy regulators, completing panel Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race MORE over the latter’s 2002 Senate vote to give then-President George W. Bush the authority to use force in Iraq. Sanders, who voted the other way, recalled listening to the claims of the Bush administration. 

“I thought they were lying,” Sanders said. “Joe saw it differently.”

Sanders also made a typically vigorous case for his "Medicare for All" health care proposal and stood out from the rest of the field for his opposition to President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE's renegotiated North American trade deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement.

Sanders recently topped the respected Des Moines Register poll in Iowa and he appeared to sustain no serious damage at the debate in the early caucus state.


Biden presses electability case

Biden’s calling card in the race has always been simple: he’s the best candidate to defeat Trump.

His rivals push back hard on that idea, of course. But Biden on Tuesday made the case more explicitly and repeatedly than in previous debates. 

On at least two occasions, he asserted that he had broader support than any other candidate in the field, specifically citing his support among black Democrats.

The fact that Warren and Sanders went at each other so directly could also help Biden. It took the heat off him. It also holds out the possibility that he can present himself as the best candidate to unify the party.

There are serious vulnerabilities for the former vice president, for sure. His Iraq War vote is one, but so too is the sense that voters may want more sweeping change than he is offering.

For all his experience, Biden has been an indifferent debater in this campaign. He wasn’t outstanding on Tuesday but he avoided any real gaffes.


Buttigieg fades into the background

This was one of Pete Buttigieg’s weaker debate performances, at a time when he could ill afford it.

The former Midwestern mayor had soared in polls in the final months of 2019, at one stage becoming the clear leader in Iowa. His poll numbers have softened since then, though he still has a real shot of success in the Feb. 3 caucuses.

One problem for Buttigieg is that he was marginal for much of Tuesday’s debate, with the spotlight being grabbed by the three other big-name candidates. He also did himself no favors by his penchant for rather vague or platitudinous answers.

Buttigieg continues to present himself as the youthful centrist, at one point jabbing at progressives for purportedly believing that “the boldness of a plan only consists of how many Americans it can alienate.”

That was one of the most memorable lines in an otherwise forgettable night for Buttigieg, however.

Klobuchar fails to find a game-changer


Klobuchar is in an unusual position, being neither part of the top tier of candidates nor an also-ran. 

She is polling at 7 percent support in the RealClearPolitics average in Iowa, well behind Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren.

The Minnesota senator on Tuesday hearkened back to her Midwest roots and having served as a voice of skepticism about some of the more sweeping proposals from the left.

She reiterated her preference for expanding the Affordable Care Act rather than aiming for Medicare for All, for example, insisting that if other candidates want to “have a plan and not a pipe dream, you have to show how you’re going to pay for it.”

But if Klobuchar was steady, she was also unspectacular — and that makes it hard to see how the debate vaults her into contention in the caucuses.