In Iowa de­bate, jostling to stand out

Demo­cratic can­di­dates delve into con­flict abroad, gen­der and health care in last face­off be­fore cau­cuses

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MATT VISER, MICHAEL SCHERER AND AN­NIE LINSKEY

DES MOINES — A whit­tled-down field of Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates on Tues­day fo­cused on their shared disdain for Pres­i­dent Trump and elab­o­rated on a host of pol­icy dif­fer­ences do­mes­tic and for­eign in an Iowa pres­i­den­tial de­bate whose most an­i­mated mo­ment turned on whether a woman could be­come pres­i­dent.

With the Demo­cratic vot­ing be­gin­ning in less than three weeks — and knot­ted among a quar­tet of lead­ing con­tenders — the can­di­dates dif­fered over the sud­denly top­i­cal de­ci­sion of whether to com­mit troops abroad or re­move them from the Mid­dle East, their dis­parate views on trade deals and their starkly dif­fer­ent pro­pos­als to re­make the coun­try’s health-care in­dus­try.

Com­ing on the heels of Pres­i­dent Trump’s de­ci­sion to kill Ira­nian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the de­bate opened up with a re­lit­i­ga­tion of the war in Iraq, and a re­newed dis­cus­sion over how and whether the can­di­dates would com­mit troops in the Mid­dle East. Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-mass.) com­mit­ted to bring­ing com­bat troops home, while for­mer South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete But­tigieg pointed to his own ex­pe­ri­ence in the mil­i­tary. For­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den cast his ex­pe­ri­ence in that of­fice as in­valu­able, while Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-VT.) sug­gested Bi­den’s vote in fa­vor of the Iraq War was dis­qual­i­fy­ing.

“Joe and I lis­tened to what Dick Cheney and Ge­orge Bush and [Donald] Rums­feld had to say,” San­ders said, speak­ing of the de­bate af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks to give Bush author­ity to strike over­seas. “I thought they were ly­ing. I didn’t be­lieve them for a mo­ment. I took to the floor. I did ev­ery­thing I could to pre­vent that war. Joe saw it dif­fer­ently.”

Bi­den, while fo­cus­ing on the work he did dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to wind down U.S. mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in Iraq, did

not de­fend the vote.

“It was a mis­take to trust that they weren’t go­ing to go to war,” Bi­den said about the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s as­sur­ances in 2002. “They said they were not go­ing to go to war.”

The can­di­dates agreed on the need to re­duce the U.S. mil­i­tary foot­print in Iraq and Afghanista­n, though they dif­fered slightly on timeta­bles and other de­tails.

“No one has a so­lu­tion and an end­point. We need to get our com­bat troops out,” War­ren said. “They are not help­ing.”

Bi­den and oth­ers struck a more nu­anced note, ar­gu­ing that Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces should re­main in the re­gion to guard against a resur­gence of the Is­lamic State and to pro­tect U.S. in­ter­ests.

The for­mer vice pres­i­dent also said he would not meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with whom Trump met to much-or­ches­trated drama but with whom he has been un­able to strike a deal on nu­clear weapons.

“No. Not now. I wouldn’t meet with him with­out pre­con­di­tions,” he said, blam­ing Trump for giv­ing the North Korean le­git­i­macy by meet­ing with him.

He also noted that the leader had called him “a rabid dog who should be beaten to death with a stick.”

“Other than that, you like him,” San­ders joked.

Gen­der pol­i­tics, which sub­sumed the cam­paign in re­cent days, pro­vided one of the sharpest ex­changes of the night as War­ren and San­ders clashed over whether San­ders said in a pri­vate 2018 meet­ing that a woman could not be elected against Trump in 2020.

San­ders de­nied the claim out­right. “Does any­body in their right mind be­lieve that a woman can’t be pres­i­dent?” San­ders said. “I don’t think any­body be­lieves that.”

But War­ren, as part of an ap­par­ent pivot to em­brace her role as the high­est-polling woman in the race, stuck to the claim she first made the day be­fore the de­bate.

“I dis­agreed,” she said of her con­ver­sa­tion with San­ders in 2018. “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.”

She went on to di­vide the stage by gen­der, say­ing that she and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-minn.) were the only two can­di­dates to have won all of their elec­tions, while the men on­stage had col­lec­tively lost 10 races.

Klobuchar laugh­ingly agreed, and later noted that she had an un­bro­ken record of win­ning in ar­eas sim­i­lar to those in which Trump had de­feated Hil­lary Clin­ton.

As the de­bate ended, War­ren could be seen ap­proach­ing San­ders but de­clin­ing his of­fer of a hand­shake. They both ap­peared to be testy, War­ren wring­ing her hands and San­ders making fre­quent ges­tures.

The ex­tended con­fronta­tion was re­mark­able, com­ing four years af­ter the party se­lected Clin­ton as its first fe­male nom­i­nee. Her loss to Pres­i­dent Trump amid what many felt were misog­y­nis­tic at­tacks helped en­er­gize women who came out for mas­sive marches the day af­ter he was in­au­gu­rated, helped fuel the elec­tion of record num­bers of women to Congress and handed the House speaker’s gavel back to Nancy Pelosi.

But Demo­cratic anx­i­ety over Trump, and whether he could de­feat an­other woman, has been one of the loom­ing ques­tions over the pri­mary con­test for the past year, asked ev­ery­where from top party lead­ers to Democrats at­tend­ing ral­lies in early states.

Bi­den chimed into the dis­cus­sion to ar­gue that he alone had the longevity and the ex­pe­ri­ence to knit to­gether a coali­tion of the whole party.

“I agree women can win,” Bi­den said, tout­ing the num­ber of fe­male can­di­dates he helped in 2018 and call­ing it “the best group I’ve ever cam­paigned for in terms of com­pe­tence.”

“But the real is­sue is who can bring the whole party to­gether, rep­re­sents all el­e­ments of the party,” he said. “I would ar­gue that in terms of en­dorse­ments around the coun­try, en­dorse­ments, wher­ever we go, I am the one who has the broad­est coali­tion of any­one run­ning up here in this race.”

The de­bate came just 20 days be­fore the Iowa cau­cuses, the re­sults of which are likely to be piv­otal in the 2020 nom­i­na­tion fight.

The ma­jor Demo­cratic can­di­dates have gone all-in on the state, and with polls show­ing a mul­ti­can­di­date tie, with about 1 in 5 vot­ers fa­vor­ing Bi­den, San­ders and But­tigieg. War­ren is close on their heels with 16 per­cent sup­port, ac­cord­ing to an aver­age of two Iowa polls over the past week.

The two other can­di­dates on the stage, Klobuchar and the bil­lion­aire ac­tivist Tom Steyer, have been rank­ing in the sin­gle dig­its, well be­low the 15 per­cent thresh­old re­quired by party rules to ac­quire con­ven­tion del­e­gates.

Steyer, who has gained ground in sev­eral new polls af­ter a bar­rage of tele­vi­sion ads, made one of his most ag­gres­sive ar­gu­ments around the need to com­bat cli­mate change.

“We’re go­ing to come to the res­cue of Amer­i­cans who are in trou­ble. But this is why cli­mate is my num­ber one pri­or­ity,” he said. “And I’m still shocked that I’m the only per­son on this stage who will say this: I would de­clare a state of emer­gency on day one.”

For sev­eral of the can­di­dates on­stage, the de­bate marked the fi­nal high­lighted mo­ment be­fore the Se­nate impeachmen­t trial di­verts the na­tion’s at­ten­tion and demands their pres­ence in Wash­ing­ton. While War­ren, San­ders and Klobuchar will have to serve as ju­rors, Bi­den too could be roped into the pro­ceed­ings; some Se­nate Repub­li­cans are seek­ing to force his son Hunter to tes­tify about his ac­tiv­i­ties in Ukraine when his fa­ther was vice pres­i­dent.

Bi­den said Tues­day night that he had no con­cern about his fam­ily be­ing dragged into the Se­nate trial. There has been no ev­i­dence of wrong­do­ing on the part of ei­ther Bi­den, but it has been a topic the cam­paign has gen­er­ally tried to avoid.

“It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter whether he goes af­ter me,” Bi­den said. “I have got to be able not only to fight but also to heal, and as pres­i­dent of the United States that’s what I will at­tempt to do.”

Some of the de­bate reprised ear­lier such gath­er­ings. For the sev­enth straight face­off, the can­di­dates cast dif­fer­ent vi­sions on health care, with San­ders con­tin­u­ing to push for Medi­care-forall, which would abol­ish the pri­vate health-care in­dus­try.

“Again, I think it is much bet­ter to build on the Af­ford­able Care Act,” Klobuchar said. “And if you want to be prac­ti­cal and pro­gres­sive at the same time and have a plan and not a pipe dream, you have to show how are you go­ing to pay for it.”

Sev­eral of the can­di­dates tried to ad­dress some of their short­com­ings.

But­tigieg re­sponded to con­cerns in the party, shown in a re­cent Wash­ing­ton Post poll, that black vot­ers do not sup­port his cam­paign, even af­ter they learn more about him.

“The black vot­ers who know me best are sup­port­ing me,” But­tigieg said, be­fore list­ing off sev­eral re­cent en­dorse­ments. “The big­gest mis­take we can make is to take black votes for granted. And I never will.”

In the open­ing min­utes of the de­bate, San­ders also tried to ad­dress the con­cerns that he is too di­vi­sive and wouldn’t have enough ap­peal to a gen­eral elec­torate.

“I am able to work with Repub­li­cans,” he said, cit­ing un­suc­cess­ful leg­is­la­tion he co-spon­sored with Sen. Mike Lee (RU­tah). “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.”

ROBYN BECK/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls, from left, Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (Mass.), for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and Sen. Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont par­tic­i­pate in the sev­enth Demo­cratic pri­mary de­bate Tues­day in Des Moines. Vot­ing starts with Iowa cau­cuses in three weeks.

ROBYN BECK/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

From left, can­di­dates Tom Steyer, Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-mass.), for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-VT.), for­mer South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete But­tigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-minn.) make their cases to vot­ers dur­ing Tues­day night’s de­bate.

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