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.

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Live Blog

There's a reason health care plays a central debate role: It's still the top issue for voters

Yes, the candidates are rehashing many of the same arguments about health care that we’ve heard before.

But there’s a reason that health care comes up for so long in every debate: Democratic voters consistently say that it’s their top issue.  

That’s certainly the case in Iowa, where tonight’s debate is taking place. Last week’s Des Moines Register/CNN poll found that 68 percent of Democratic voters in the state called health care “extremely important” to their vote choice in the caucuses, with another 25 percent calling it “important.”

With the exception of climate change, other issues received significantly less attention from voters.

Just 52 percent called the economy “extremely” important to their vote choice, and just 25 percent named impeachment as “extremely” important to them.

Do Americans like their insurance?

A constant refrain over the course of all the Democratic debates among candidates opposed to universal public health care: Americans are happy with their health insurance the way it is.

The details are a little more complicated. For about 156 million Americans, their employers provide their health insurance. And most employees do say they are satisfied with those plans, according to a May 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation/Los Angeles Times survey of Americans with employer-provided health insurance. 

But 40 percent of those polled also said they had real difficulty paying medical bills, affording their premiums, deductibles and copays. And 51 percent said they or a relative have skipped or postponed medical care or medications they needed and even relied on home remedies because of cost. 

Trump's a popular target. Tonight he's even more popular.

Midway into tonight's debate, President Donald Trump has been attacked as many times as in the entire September Democratic debate. Amy Klobuchar accounts for 11 of those 28 attacks, and Bernie Sanders  five.

Warren gets personal during child care debate

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.