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January Democratic debate live updates: Six candidates face off in Des Moines

Tuesday's debate was the smallest one yet.
Image: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, former mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar will take the state in a Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night in Iowa.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, former mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar will take the stage in a Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night in Iowa.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

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NBC News provided up-to-the-minute coverage of the seventh Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Tuesday's debate stage was the smallest one yet, with many of the candidates who appeared on stage in previous debates either failing to qualify or dropping out of the race.

Hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register, the debate featured six candidates: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, billionaire Tom Steyer, and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

Read about all the highlights below.

Download the NBC News app for full politics coverage.

Live Blog

Sanders again denies telling Warren that a woman cannot win the election

Sanders again denied telling Warren that a woman cannot be elected president. He said that the attacks are what Trump and the media want and that he plans to work to elect whoever wins the nomination if he doesn’t.

Climate part of the debate without climate questions

The candidates aren’t waiting for climate questions to bring up the issue.

Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Steyer have all brought up climate change in reference to non-climate questions. It’s notable because global warming can sometimes get lost in the shuffle or only get discussed in reference to specific questions.

But tonight we’re hearing how climate is an intersectional issue, particularly when it comes to the country and the world’s economic future.

Democratic voters see Biden as most capable on foreign policy

The beginning of the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses zeroed in on foreign policy, the decision to use military force, and how the United States deals with its adversaries.

While the topic included a refresher on Joe Biden’s onetime support for the war in Iraq — courtesy of Bernie Sanders — the heavy focus on foreign policy more generally could be helpful to Biden, who is the candidate most trusted on foreign policy by Democratic voters, according to a recent CNN poll.

CNN found in its November national poll that 48 percent of Democratic voters called Biden the most capable candidate to handle foreign policy. The contenders with the next highest level of trust were Sanders, at just 14 percent, and Warren, at just 11 percent.

Joe Biden with the most talking time early on

Early into tonight's debate, Joe Biden has gotten the most talking time. This is opposite the position he was in early in the December 2019 Democratic debate.

Warren and Sanders clash... on trade

Sanders and Warren drew their first significant distinction of the night — and it was on trade. 

(Yeah, not what people were expecting heading into the night.)

Sanders said he doesn’t support USMCA, Trump's NAFTA replacement, because of the impact it will have on the environment, even if big labor is supportive. 

But Warren said the agreement would be an improvement on NAFTA, calling it a "modest improvement." She also highlighted past deals she was against.

BUT... neither candidate directly criticized the others' position, even when given the opportunity.

Elizabeth Warren. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders during the presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14, 2020.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Sanders seizes on trade to talk climate

Sanders has been a vocal critic of free trade for years, mostly because of the toll it has taken on U.S. workers.

But tonight, he emphasized the impact that outsourcing can have on the climate. And when moderator Brianne Pfannenstiel told him the debate will touch on climate change later but the current question is about trade, Sanders immediately responded: “Well, they are the same in this issue.”

Sanders voted 'no' on Iraq. Here's what he did support.

Sanders talked up his well-known opposition to the Iraq War on the debate stage Tuesday, but he omitted his repeated support for a regime change in Iraq in the years leading up to that war and his mixed record on war and peace. Sanders voted for the Iraq Liberation Act and backed President Bill Clinton's airstrikes in 1998 and advocated for regime change in the country.

“Mr. Speaker, Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who should be overthrown, and his ability to make weapons of destruction must be eliminated,” he said on the Senate floor in December 1998.

As NBC News' Jon Allen noted earlier today, Sanders has said his 2001 vote to authorize war in Afghanistan was "wrong." He has repeatedly attacked Biden for voting in favor of the Iraq War, a vote that Biden has similarly characterized as a mistake. 

Biden and Sanders draw laughter when talking about North Korea strategy

Biden said that in his administration he would work with China to pressure North Korea and would not meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, who previously called the former vice president a rabid dog that should be beaten with a stick.

Sanders then chimed in: "Other than that, you like him?" This drew laughter from the audience.

Biden responded: "Other than that, I like him, and he got a love letter from Trump right after that."

Sanders links past wars to fears of Trump lying

Bernie Sanders tied old wars to the current debate over war powers with a message aimed at the conscience and collective memory of the Democratic Party’s left wing.

He fears, he said, that President Donald Trump is the latest in a line of commanders in chief — following Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush — who will abuse his bully pulpit to deceive the American public about bloody and costly wars.

“What we have to face as a nation is that the two great foreign policy disasters of our lifetimes were the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq,” he said. “Both of those wars were based on lies. And right now, what I fear very much is we have a president who is lying again and could drag us into a war that is even worse than the war in Iraq.”

It was a message Sanders was intent on delivering: He delayed answering a different question from moderator Wolf Blitzer to pause, zoom out and explain how he thinks Vietnam and Iraq are connected to the current clash over war powers.

We apologize, this video has expired.

Foreign policy takes up first quarter of debate

This is a two-hour debate, and we’re a quarter through it. And, so far, it’s a different kind of debate. 

Questions from the moderators have centered on foreign policy: troops in the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear efforts and how to handle North Korea.

Foreign policy had not dominated any of the previous Democratic debates so far, but it's not hard to see why it came to the forefront: the recent events in Iran and Iraq.

Flashback: Barbara Lee's Iraq war vote gets high praise at last debate

At the December debate, in response to a question about what to do about continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Sanders said he was wrong to support the initial military action — and acknowledged the stand taken by Barbara Lee.

Lee, a Democratic representative from California, has been an ardent anti-war advocate and was the only member of Congress to vote against military action after 9/11.