If the escalation of tensions in the Middle East changes how Iowans vote next month, then perhaps Tuesday night’s debate offered a new prism to view the Democratic presidential contenders.
Maybe the question that led the night — why do you have what it takes to be commander in chief — altered the calculus of some voters.
Otherwise, the six candidates meeting for the seventh and last time before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses engaged in familiar arguments over health care, the cost of college and trade, but without the fireworks of past encounters.
Despite the smallest field on the stage yet, the candidates avoided major conflicts with each other, a sign that there’s no clear front-runner in Iowa. Recent polls show a statistical dead heat there, with U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg all polling within a few points of each other.
Asked out of the gate about his readiness to lead the military, Sanders predictably turned the conversation to his vote against the war in Iraq, while drawing comparisons to Biden’s early support for conflict with Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“I did everything I could to stop that war,” Sanders said. “Joe voted for it.”
Biden acknowledged the vote was a mistake and reminded viewers that his poor judgment on one issue didn’t keep him from becoming the running mate of another opponent of the war — Barack Obama.
Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota were not around for that vote and said their work on various Senate committees would prepare them to run the world’s most powerful military. Buttigieg, who once served in that military, said he would lean on that service and “learn from the lessons of the past." Businessman Tom Steyer said his international work provided experiences that would come in handy.
All of the candidates saved their sharpest criticism on the topic for President Donald Trump, who they blasted for ripping up the Iran nuclear deal and killing Iranian general Qasem Soleimani without a plan for the fallout.
The biggest distinction was on what to do next. While Warren and Sanders advocated removing the remaining troops from the Middle East, Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar all advocated for leaving a smaller, strategic footprint.
“There’s a difference between combat troops and leaving special forces in position,” Biden said.
One controversy leading up to the debate spilled onto the stage. Sanders was asked about a CNN story that reported he told Warren in 2018 that a woman couldn’t win the presidency.
Sanders reaffirmed his denial Tuesday night, not only insisting he didn’t say it but declaring himself a long-time advocate for women in politics.
"Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes,“ Sanders said. "How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?”
Warren confirmed the veracity of the story before insisting Sanders was a friend. Though she added: “The only people on this stage who have won every election they have run in are women, Amy and me.”
After the debate, Sanders and Warren appeared to have a terse conversation and the two didn’t shake hands.
On health care, Warren appeared to simultaneously soften her rigid defense of her plan for universal health care while still criticizing her opponents for not offering enough. She said she would work to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, but also said the plans from Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg to offer a public insurance option were “a small improvement, but that’s why they cost so much less.”
Buttigieg rejected that characterization.
“This would be a game-changer,” he said. “This would be the biggest thing we did to American health care in a half century.”
One issue that was not addressed? How white the debate stage and the Democratic field has become in a primary where voters of color will make a tremendous difference at the polls. New York businessman Andrew Yang did not qualify for the debate and Sen. Cory Booker dropped out of the race on Monday.