Democrats square off before voting begins

Foreign policy, electability and gender take center stage


Photo courtesy of Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (left) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (right) privately speak after the Democratic presidential primary debate on January 14, 2020.

Richard Tzul, News Managing Editor

Weeks before voting begins in Iowa, six Democratic presidential candidates gathered on stage in the state’s capital of Des Moines at Drake University to convince voters which one of them should run against Donald Trump in the general election. According to recent poll numbers, it’s a tight four person race in Iowa, the inaugural state for the primaries and caucuses. With a race more contentious than ever, this was the most significant debate to date.

Foreign Policy

The opening subject of the debate, which took up a significant amount of speaking time, was foreign policy. The urgency of the topic made sense given the recent targeted killing of Maj. General Qassim Suleimani and the resulting fallout, which has dominated news coverage in recent weeks.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has consistently touted his experience on the world stage, reasserted his credentials of being part of the Obama administration, which crafted the Iran Nuclear Deal. However, a debate moderator brought up Obama’s record of military action without congressional approval, something Trump has been criticized for in his decision to kill Suleimani.

The topic was an opportunity for Senator Bernie Sanders to contrast himself from Biden over their vote on the Iraq war. While Biden initially supported it, Sanders opposed it and reminded everyone of his vigorous campaign to cease “endless wars” and Middle East intervention.

However, Sanders’ voting record was also brought into question by a moderator regarding his vote to approve the war in Afghanistan. Sanders squirmed out of the spotlight by saying only one congressperson opposed the war at the time and shifted back to how he opposed the Iraq war — and grilling Biden for originally approving it.

Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg drew from his military experience, sharing an anecdote of a deploying fellow service member saying farewell to his child. Buttigieg slammed the president for his action of sending troops to the Middle East dispute promising to end intervention in the region.

Can a Woman be President?

One of the biggest highlights of the night, arguably out of the whole race, was the question of whether a woman can become president. The topic came up due to a CNN report, released Monday, which said that according to four sources, in 2018, Sanders privately told Senator Elizabeth Warren that a woman could not win the presidency. Warren said the accounts are true, while Sanders has denied it. The Washington Post spoke with one source who alleged Sanders did not make that comment.

Warren went on to challenge the question of electability— sometimes a code word in this race asking if an ethnic or sexual minority can beat Trump— by touting her perfect winning record along with Senator Amy Klobuchar, the only other female on stage.

“So, can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost ten elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women: Amy and me,” she said eliciting laughter and applause. “And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”

Klobuchar followed up referencing female governors who beat Republican opponents and boasted her own record of winning in Republican communities. “I have won every race, every place, every time. I have won in the reddest of districts. I have won in the suburban areas, in the rural areas. I have brought people with me.”

While put on the spot over the CNN report, Sanders insisted that he does believe a woman could become president. He referenced Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote in the 2016 presidential race and said there was a YouTube video showing him 30 years ago saying a woman could win the Oval Office.

“How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States? And let me be very clear. 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,” he said eliciting laughter. “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.”

A highlight of the night occurred after the debate. In a candid moment as the candidates were exiting the stage, Warren and Sanders had a brief and visibly tense interaction. Warren didn’t shake Sanders’ hand, which he extended to her. Then, in a conversation that lasted seconds, Sanders pointed back and forth between her and himself and gave a dismissive hand gesture as he walked off. 

In the following days, CNN uncovered audio of the candidates remarks to each other.

Warren essentially accused Sanders of calling her “a liar on national TV.” Sanders in return accused her of calling him a liar. He expressed wanting to table the conversation for another time. “Anytime,” Warren said in response.


Buttigieg had a surge in his campaign during the fall, climbing to the top of polls in early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. However, more recently the race appears to be anyone’s game between him, Biden, Warren and Sanders.

A Des Moines Register/CNN poll released Friday showed Sanders in the lead at 20 percent with Warren at 17 percent, Buttigieg at 16 percent and Biden at 15 percent in Iowa.

On Monday, a newly released Monmouth University poll showed Biden leading in Iowa at 24 percent, Sanders at 18 percent, Buttigieg at 17 percent and Warren at 15 percent.

Buttigieg missed his chance to once again propel a surge, as he flew under the radar for a sizable portion of the debate and didn’t have a standout moment like his “purity test” retort to Warren’s “wine cave” scrutiny from the previous debate.

While businessman Tom Steyer and Klobuchar qualified for the stage, it’s not likely (strictly going by the polling data) for them to win Iowa. Steyer had the least amount of speaking time according to data from CNN


However, Klobuchar once again had a strong debate performance with the third most speaking time over front-runners Biden and Buttigieg.

She also benefited from the smallest debate lineup this season, standing out more and bolstering her platform as a Midwestern candidate in the rural state of Iowa, while boasting her winning record and electability along with Warren.

As mentioned, Warren shined when it came to tackle sexism in politics. She also had the most speaking time, CNN reported.

Biden got to emphasize his federal executive experience at a time when foreign policy is heavily on the minds of Americans and the rest of the world. Despite having a reputation as a “gaffe machine,” the former vice president was mostly articulate. He spoke on how he’d handle international relations and policy-whether his strategy is correct, he still spoke in detail and confidence giving the impression he knows what he’s doing.

Sanders at every debate so far, including this one, elicited laughter from the audience. He spoke strongly with passion and energy once again defying his age. Plus, the Intercept reported that Sanders had a successful night of fundraising.

“A staffer for the Sanders campaign said it had its best fundraising hour of any debate thus far, with more than 15,000 contributions,” the article stated. “The campaign said the donations, which totaled $1.7 million by the end of the night, accounted for 43 percent of all money raised on the Democratic fundraising site Act Blue during that period of time.”

The debate was hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register. The Iowa caucus will take place Feb. 3. The California primary, as part of Super Tuesday, will take place March 3.