Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Democratic primary is finally winnowing: On Tuesday, a much more reasonably sized field of six candidates will take the stage at Drake University in Des Moines at 9 p.m., after the Democratic National Committee again increased the debate’s qualifying threshold. With their extended speaking time, the presidential hopefuls onstage — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer — will aim to convince Iowa crowd that they’re the candidate to caucus for on February 3, whether by building up their record or tearing down their opponents’. Here seven themes to watch for in the last debate before the primary kicks into high gear.

The so-called non-aggression pact between the two progressive senators appears to be wearing thin. After Politico reported on Sunday that the Bernie Sanders’s campaign issued volunteers a script claiming that Elizabeth Warren is “bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party,” CNN blew the quarrel open on Monday, reporting that Sanders told Warren in a private conversation in 2018 that he didn’t think a female candidate could win the presidency at this time. Sanders blamed the detail on “lying” Warren staffers, but hours later she disputed Sanders’s denial herself, claiming he said he “disagreed” with her belief that a woman could win in 2020. Though Warren stated that she has “no interest in discussing this private meeting any further,” the comment is expected to set the tone for the debate.

Even if the alleged comment had not come to light, reports in recent days had already built up the tension between the senators, who could each benefit from a successful attack on the other. As the only progressive candidates remaining, they share an interest in picking up each other’s supporters if one of their campaigns begins to tumble: A Quinnipiac survey released on Monday shows that 52 percent of Sanders’s supporters back Warren as a second choice, while Bernie is the second choice for 57 percent of Warren supporters.

Despite some polls showing Bernie Sanders out front in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden has maintained his consistent lead at the national level; together with his long, conflicted record and his tendency to misspeak, this makes him a perennial bullseye for other debaters.

Judging from the proposals released by other candidates this month, Sanders and Warren may be looking to jab at the former vice-president. Last week, Warren released a plan to reform bankruptcy law, suggesting she may go after Biden for his support of a bill passed in 2005 that made it more difficult for middle-class families to cancel debts after filing for bankruptcy — which may have increased foreclosure rates following the financial crisis. Sanders, meanwhile, is expected to target Biden over his record on Social Security, as well as his early support of the Iraq war.

Through the previous six debates, Democrats have largely focused on domestic policy, charting a course between progressive and moderate ideas on health-care reform and college affordability, among other issues. But after the targeted killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, the candidates will surely weigh in on President Trump’s spurious rationale for the strike and its resulting fallout. And though the U.S.-Iran conflict has thankfully de-escalated for the time being, the volleys between the countries will be enough to project debate attention beyond U.S. soil. Here, too, Sanders may go after Biden for his war record, as he reiterates his reputation as the field’s proven anti-war candidate.

With the Iowa caucuses (and their resulting polling bump) less than three weeks away, the candidates in Des Moines will most likely stress topics that Hawkeye voters care about, including child care, impeachment, and electability. The Iowa myopia will be especially intense this cycle, considering the effective four-way tie among Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden in the gold-standard Des Moines Register/CNN poll from last week.

One of many frustrations in the early debates centered on mic time, as candidates who didn’t have a shot — looking at you, John Delaney — ate up the speaking opportunities of those whose had a viable path to the nomination. Seven debates in, stringent debate qualifications and general campaign attrition have cut the number of candidates to half-a-dozen. With the extended minutes-per-candidate, expect more substantive policy explanations, less of Biden’s abrupt stops, and longer back-and-forths as candidates confront each other.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar will most likely spend the bulk of her time trying to convince neighboring Iowans that her record winning in a blue-purple state reflects well on the national level. If Klobuchar cannot convert the debate opportunity and the remaining campaigning time in January into a strong showing at the caucuses, she will be essentially forced to drop out of the race. Unlike the billionaire candidates, she will not be able to buy herself into future debates, and a “fifth ticket” out of Iowa is all-but-unheard of, especially for a candidate who hasn’t been able to break out of the single digits at early-state or national levels.

Ah, yes, the historically-important political background noise with the potential to transform both the primary and its schedule — or not. As the crisis in Iran retreats from the front page, Trump’s impeachment should reenter politics and the primary. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a Tuesday meeting with her caucus, which should yield new information on the timetable for the trial in the Senate. In addition to being a debate wildcard, the amount of time and concern the candidates devote to the topic in Des Moines should reveal how much they intend to stress the matter on the stump.

Sign Up for the Intelligencer Newsletter
Daily news about the politics, business, and technology shaping our world.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Notice and to receive email correspondence from us.

7 Things to Watch for in the January Democratic Debate

Read More