DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) – Six Democrats squared off in a televised debate on Tuesday in Iowa, their last chance to make the case for their candidacies to a national audience before the party’s presidential nominating process kicks off in the state on Feb. 3.
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) billionaire activist Tom Steyer, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) participate in the seventh Democratic 2020 presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
The event included the smallest and least-diverse group of candidates to date in the race, as polling has narrowed the field of contenders who qualify for the debate and several minority candidates have ended their White House bids.
The pared-down stage for the seventh debate gave candidates more time to focus on the top issues. Here are some highlights:
CAN A WOMAN WIN?
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders tried to deflect questions about a CNN report that in a private meeting in 2018 he told Senator Elizabeth Warren that he did not believe a woman could win the presidency in November 2020.
The reports of Sanders’ comments quickly became a flash point in the Democratic race and ended a peace accord between the two leading progressive candidates. The dispute deepened on Monday when Warren took the unusual step of confirming the report, even as Sanders continued to deny it.
“Why did you say that?” moderator Abby Phillip asked Sanders of the meeting.
“As a matter of fact I didn’t say it, and I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this because this is what Donald Trump, and maybe some of the media, want,” Sanders replied, saying it was “incomprehensible” he would say such a thing.
Warren, when asked what she thought when Sanders gave her his opinion, said she disagreed.
“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.”
Warren went on to say that while the four men on the stage had collectively lost 10 elections, the two women – herself and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar – had won each election they had been in.
“I have won every race, every place, every time, I have won in the reddest of district, I have won in the suburban areas, in the rural areas,” Klobuchar said.
IRAQ WAR AND NORTH KOREA
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders tangled over their differing votes more than a decade ago on the Iraq war, with each arguing his vote was evidence of what would make him the best commander in chief of U.S. military forces going forward.
Sanders was one of the only members of Congress who voted against the Iraq war in 2002, while Biden, then a senator, voted for it.
“I am able to work with Republicans, I am able to bring people together to try to create a world where we solve conflicts over the negotiating table, not through military efforts,” Sanders said.
Biden defended his vote in favor, saying that at the time he believed the administration of former Republican President George W. Bush was trying to act in the best interest of the United States and would avoid war.
“It was a big, big mistake,” Biden said of his vote. “And from that point on … I moved to bring those troops home.”
Sanders said Biden should have figured out the Bush administration was not making a truthful case for the conflict.
“Joe and I listened to what [then Vice President] Dick Cheney and George Bush and [then Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld had to say,” Sanders said. “I thought they were lying, I did not believe them for a moment. I took to the floor, I did everything I could to prevent that war. Joe saw things differently.”
When it came to North Korea, Biden and Sanders seemed to have a moment of agreement, at least enough to share a joke.
Biden said he wouldn’t meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, saying “absent pre-conditions I would not meet with the supreme leader who said Joe Biden is a rabid dog, he should be beaten to death with a stick.”
“Other than that you like him,” Sanders interrupted.
Biden laughed. “Other than that I like him, and he got a love letter from Trump right after that,” he said.
Biden and Sanders also had a pointed exchange on the issue of trade during a discussion of Trump’s new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, called the USMCA, which replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
Sanders opposed NAFTA and does not support the USMCA, which Biden has backed.
“I don’t know that there’s any trade agreement that the senator would ever think made any sense,” Biden said in response to Sanders.
“Joe and I have a fundamental disagreement, in case you haven’t noticed,” Sanders replied, drawing laughter in the debate arena.
Reporting by Tim Reid and Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker; Writing by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Sonya Hepinstall