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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

Meghan McCain is watching the candidates tonight - and misses some of them

Bernie Sanders now leads all candidates in talking time

An hour into the seventh Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders leads all candidates in talking time. After a strong start, Joe Biden has dropped back into the middle of the pack.

Follow the NBC News talking-time tracker here.

Warren’s ‘Hardball’ strategy

Chris Matthews deserves a shout-out after Elizabeth Warren seemed to snag a chapter — “Hang a Lantern on Your Problem” — out of the MSNBC’s host’s seminal political book “Hardball.” The phrase means it’s better to call attention to your own potential political vulnerabilities than let an opponent hammer you on them first.

Warren said the question of whether a woman can win the presidency has been swirling in Democratic circles throughout the primary — in a way that suggests a woman would lose — and that the candidates shouldn’t “deny” that. 

The idea is nonsense, she argued, noting she and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are “the only people on this stage who have won every single election they've been in.”

Her rivals agreed with her that a woman can with the presidency. That makes it harder for any of them to suggest a woman can’t win going forward and may inoculate her and Klobuchar from voter fears that nominating a woman in 2020 will result in the same outcome as it did in 2016. Not the hardball viewers might have expected after Warren tussled with Sanders over whether he’d told her a woman couldn’t win the White House, but “Hardball” nonetheless.

Can women win? They already have.

In responding to concerns that a woman cannot win the presidency, Sen. Elizabeth Warren argued that Trump’s presidency had produced many things including a wave of women elected to public office.

In 2018, the first midterm election cycle after Donald Trump secured the White House, voters sent a record number of women to Congress: 117. Today, women make up about 20 percent of the U.S. House and Senate.

It’s not the first time that women have seen vast public office gains amid gender-related controversy. After Americans watched an all-male Senate Judiciary committee investigate Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations, voters elected so many women to federal public office that 1992 became known as “The Year of The Woman.” That year, California became the first state with an all-female Senate delegation.

Sanders fact checks Warren, whose math is just ever so slightly off

After Warren said "the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years is me," Sanders countered with a fact check: He beat a Republican incumbent in Vermont in 1990.

The devil’s in the details — especially when it comes to fact checking — and Sanders is technically correct. He defeated Rep. Peter Smith, a Republican, in November 1990. So ... 29 years and a couple of months ago.

In lieu of debate, Bloomberg’s social team gets weird

It’s hard to cut through the noise on Twitter, especially on debate night. Well, Michael Bloomberg’s social team sure is trying. 

They’ve sent out a variety of odd tweets, none weirder than this one:

Warren and Sanders' history of peace on the debate stage ended tonight

Elizabeth Warren declared midway into tonight's debate she wasn't here to attack Bernie Sanders... then minutes later she attacked Sanders, twice.

She and Sanders had been hands-off with each other: Up until tonight Warren had attacked Sanders zero times and Sanders had attacked Warren zero times.

Follow along with the NBC News debate attack tracker.

Warren dings male candidates on stage when addressing feud with Sanders

Warren was given the chance to respond to Sanders' assertion that he did not tell her in a one-on-one 2018 meeting that a woman couldn’t be elected president, which she had earlier claimed he did.

“I disagreed,” Warren said of her thoughts on their reported 2018 discussion. “Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But, look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised and it's time for us to attack it head on. And I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people's winning record. So, can a woman beat Donald Trump?”

“Look at the men on this stage: Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women: Amy and me. And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”

Sanders responded that he had defeated a Republican incumbent in 1990, to which Warren responded that she placed her timeline within 30 years. Sanders’ 1990 election is months short of being 30 years ago.

Warren later expanded upon her earlier answer, saying: "I do think it's the right question, how do we beat Trump? And here's the thing. Since Donald Trump was elected, women candidates have outperformed men candidates in competitive races.”

“Back in the 1960s people asked, 'Could a Catholic win?'” she added. “Back in 2008 people asked if an African American could win. In both times the Democratic Party stepped up and said yes, got behind their candidate and we changed America. That's who we are."

Sanders, for his part, told moderators that he believes a woman can win the White House.

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.