WASHINGTON - With 20 days left before Iowa voters kick off the 2020 presidential nomination race, stakes would already by high for the six Democrats who made the cut for Tuesday night's debate in Des Moines. But with a thrice-in-the-nation's history impeachment trial set to open next week, three of those contenders face the prospect of having their campaigns frozen in amber.

For them - Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar - the need to leave a lasting impression was paramount, and they arrived in Des Moines with dramatically different fortunes.

Sanders has surged into first place in Iowa. Warren has slipped, and tempers have flared between the two leading progressives in recent days. Klobuchar remains far back in the pack but still hanging on as a centrist alternative to Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the former vice president and former South Bend, Ind., mayor.

Biden comes to Dallas on Wednesday night. He, Buttigieg and billionaire Tom Steyer will have the luxury of jetting around the country even when the Senate is in session on impeachment, one of many key backdrops for the debate.

Some highlights of the debate:


Biden has led the field for a year, even before he jumped into the race, thanks to his unmatched experience - eight years as vice president - and the perception that he's the most electable.

Rivals have tried to chip away at that perception, or refocus attention to other criteria.

Biden isn't giving ground on that point and ahead of the debate, he released an ad that explicitly appeals on that basis. It shows Trump uttering his name over and over, and cites polls showing Biden topping the president in battlegrounds that swung the 2016 election: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

"I've taken all the hits he can deliver and I'm going up in the polls," Biden said during the debate.

The problem with an electability argument is that it hinges on perceptions, and those can be fragile. Rivals goaded Biden in previous debates, hoping to trigger one of his signature gaffes or expose him as insufficiently progressive.

This time, he didn't rattle. With fewer competitors to worry about, he seemed more poised and sharper than in previous debates.

Biden's fluency on national security served him well, as usual, and this time he even managed not to trip over tongue twisters.

"I was part of the coalition to put together 68 countries to deal with stateless terror, as well as failed states," he said at one point. "Not us alone; 68 other countries. That how we were able to defeat ... ISIS."


In the days leading up to the debate, Sanders wrestled with allegations that he'd privately told Warren that a woman couldn't win the White House, an accusation that she and allies stoked, and revelations that Sanders staffers were depicting her to voters as the favorite of better-educated, wealthier Democrats.

Moderators made sure to raise the woman issue.

"Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. How could anybody in a million years, not believe that a woman could become president," Sanders said, defending himself.

"Bernie is my friend and I'm not here to try to fight with Bernie," Warren said. But collectively, she noted, the men on stage had lost 10 races, and the only undefeated candidates were herself and Klobuchar.

The audience hooted.

An eruption of the Warren-Sanders feud was inevitable even without instigation.

The two darlings of the left have butted heads on how aggressively to tax corporations and the wealthiest Americans, and how fast the country should move toward universal, government-run health care.

A clash on trade was low octane.

Sanders distanced himself from the pending NAFTA update, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, complaining that the USMCA lacks sufficient protections for the environment and workers. "I'm sick and tired of trade agreements negotiated by the CEOs of large corporations," he said.

Warren acknowledged flaws but called it a "modest improvement," good enough to accept and keep fighting for better. "We have farmers here in Iowa who are hurting, and they are hurting because of Donald Trump's initiated trade wars," she said.

Other interactions exposed an irritable streak in both septuagenarian senators.

Warren, making the case for her own electability, boasted that she was the only person on stage who'd beaten an incumbent Republican in 30 years. Sanders broke in. He'd ousted a Republican congressman in 1990 - that is, 30 years ago - and wanted his due.

Warren looked incredulous. She'd carefully crafted her boast and wasn't about to concede an inaccuracy: "I said, I was the only one who's beaten an incumbent Republican in 30 years."

Sanders was also put off. "I don't know that that's the major issue of the day," he said.


A Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers released last Friday showed Sanders in the lead with 20% support, up 5 points since November. Warren came in second with 17%, with Buttigieg and Biden just behind.

The same foursome is clustered atop the polls in New Hampshire, with Buttigieg in first with 20%, just a tad ahead of Biden.

With such a tight race, the incentive to snipe is high, particularly for a candidate like Klobuchar. The Minnesota senator has regularly questioned Buttigieg's readiness for the presidency after rising no higher than the mayor of a city of 100,000 in elective politics. And without a strong finish in Iowa, Klobuchar may be forced to join the exodus from a field that at one point topped two dozen candidates.

The fact the former mayor has slipped invites even more attacks. Biden, too, would benefit from marginalizing the younger rival.

In fact the former vice president, poked first at Sanders, standing to his left. With the focus on trade, he teased his rival, "I don't know that there's any trade agreement that the senator would ever think made any sense. But the problem is that 95% of the customers are out there. So we better figure out how we begin to write the rules of the road" so China doesn't, Biden said.


Seven candidates qualified for the last debate, Dec. 19 in Los Angeles - the six who convened again Tuesday night, plus entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who fell short for the Iowa debate.

Since then, the world has changed dramatically. In particular, tensions with Iran have flared. Trump ordered a Jan. 3 drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iran's top general, spymaster Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force.

Democrats readily agreed that Soleimani was a dangerous adversary. But few considered the attack wise. Fears of massive retaliation so far haven't come to fruition but watch for Biden and others to position themselves as cooler heads and more strategic, less impulsive commanders in chief. They'll also have the chance to provide a vision of presidential war powers going forward.

That's a raging debate in the aftermath of an attack ordered without consulting with Congress, under legal authority granted to cope with terrorism and threats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Donald Trump is taking us pell-mell toward another war," Klobuchar warned.

Biden accused Trump of lying about an impending threat to U.S. embassies as a pretext for the attack. And he boasted that he had been part of the Obama administration's efforts to stall Iran's nuclear weapons program, only to see Trump scrap that deal, with "predictable" consequences.

"We're now isolated," he said. Allies now see a moral equivalence between the U.S. and Iran, he said, and "we have lost our standing in the region. ... The next president needs to be able to pull those folks back together, reestablish our alliances, and insist that Iran go back into the agreement."

Steyer pointed to the disastrous wildfires in Australia as a "gigantic" climate crisis that requires "the same kind of value-driven coalition building that we actually should be using in the Middle East."

Warren noted that everyone on stage opposed "endless war."

The question, she said, is how to extricate U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot zones.

"We've turned the corner so many times we're going in circles in these regions. This has got to stop. It's not enough to say someday we're going to get out. ... It's time to get our combat troops out," she said.


The House had impeached the president just a day before the last Democratic debate.

Trump's behavior and policies have provided the touchstone for Democrats throughout the campaign. But with the impeachment trial starting in a week, contrasts with Trump are at a premium, along with ideas for weaning some of his supporters and undoing his policies on taxes, the Middle East and immigration.

Klobuchar boasted that she'd been prescient by warning in the first Democratic debate, back in June in Miami, that Iran was the biggest security threat to the United States. "I said, because of Donald Trump, because I feared exactly what happened would happen: enrichment of uranium, escalation of tensions, leaving frayed relations with our allies. We can bring them back, understanding this is a terrorist regime that we cannot allow to have a nuclear weapon."


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