WASHINGTON — The fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party was on display Tuesday night in Des Moines, with moderate and progressive candidates clashing on a range of issues — from trade to troops in the Middle East — during the final debate before the Iowa caucuses.
With just six candidates on stage Tuesday night at the CNN/Des Moines Register debate — down from the initial 20 contenders divided over two nights at the field's first faceoff last year — the contenders had more space to let their policy differences come into sharper focus. But despite rising tensions in recent days, they mostly avoided lobbing personal attacks at each other.
Less than a month before Iowa voters weigh in on a 2020 Democratic contest that’s become a virtual four-way dead heat, here’s a look at who held their ground — and who might have spent their last night on a primary-season debate stage:
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.: It has felt like Sanders vs. the world as he’s stepped up his attacks in recent days, fighting to take progressive support from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and convince moderates that the future of the party lies with his vision. That theme was present on the debate stage as he suggested Biden was duped by the Bush administration on the war with Iraq and denying Warren’s claim he said a woman couldn’t get elected president.
But Sanders tried to make the case he would leave his disagreements behind once a nominee is picked. “If any of the women on this stage or any of the men on this stage win the nomination — I hope that's not the case, I hope it's me — but if they do, I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are elected, in order to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country,” Sanders said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.: The non-aggression pact between Warren and Sanders seemed to be back on. “Bernie is my friend,” said Warren. “And I am not here to try to fight with Bernie.”
But the Massachusetts senator didn’t back down from her claim that Sanders had told her a woman couldn’t be elected president — a claim he has denied — and made her case otherwise. “Can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections," she said. "The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women. Amy [Klobuchar] and me.
While they avoided on-stage fireworks, they may not have dodged a deep freeze: After the debate, Warren appeared to avoid a proffered handshake from Sanders.
Former Vice President Joe Biden: Biden has seen his front-runner status challenged by Sanders and Warren, but he’s hung on near the top of the pack with relatively little effort by his rivals to undercut him by way of tough attacks.
Sanders launched the most direct challenges at Biden on the debate stage, seeking to draw a sharp contrast on their positions over the Iraq war, trade and health care. But Biden saved most of his jabs for Trump, accusing the president and Republicans of having “gone after my surviving son, told lies your networks won't carry on TV because they are flat-out lies.”
And he looked to use those attacks to his advantage, arguing, “I've been the object of his affection now more than anyone else on this stage. I've taken all the hits he can deliver.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.: While many of her Senate peers have dropped out of the presidential hunt, Klobuchar has persisted, despite poll numbers stuck in the single digits. But she saw a spike in fundraising after the last debate, and fought for a place in the top tier as a more experienced alternative to both her fellow Midwestern moderate Pete Buttigieg and the progressive Warren and Sanders. She once again went after universal health care plans by Warren and Sanders: "If you want to have a plan and not a pipe dream you have to have a way to pay for it," she said.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg has faced an uptick in scrutiny since joining the top tier of candidates last month with his limited experience and fundraising practices coming under scrutiny during the last debate. Fighting to carve a clear lane for himself as a Midwestern moderate, Buttigieg once again argued his small-town roots made him best able to connect with voters Democrats need to win over.
Businessman Tom Steyer: With his own fortune to help finance his campaign, Steyer has avoided the cash crunch that has pushed more seasoned politicos out of the race, while his poll numbers in states that follow Iowa rise — along with his expenditure of more than $100 million. But he did little to expand his case for why he should be president beyond his core argument that he’s the candidate who would do the most to address climate change.