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Iowa Democratic Debate: Live Updates

The New York Times logo The New York Times 1/15/2020 Katie Glueck and Reid J. Epstein

Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, billionaire-philanthropist Tom Steyer (C) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speak after the seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register at the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa on January 14, 2020. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images) © Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, billionaire-philanthropist Tom Steyer (C) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speak after the seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register at the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa on January 14, 2020. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

A quick rundown of the candidates’ closing statements

Ms. Klobuchar: Zinged liberals and says she’s the candidate in the middle, inside of the “extremes of our politics.”

Mr. Steyer: Said Mr. Trump had kicked the American people “in the face,” and that he wanted to be a good “teammate” to the American people as a political leader.

Mr. Buttigieg: Described himself as the unity candidate who can win both Democrats and Republicans.

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Mr. Sanders: Said “this is the moment when we have to think big,” arguing unambitious plans will not do in 2020.

Ms. Warren: Offered a message of “hope and courage” as she detailed the challenges facing the nation, and raised the prospect of being the first woman president of the United States.

Mr. Biden: Called for restoring “decency” at home and American leadership abroad and warned that eight years of Mr. Trump’s presidency would be an “absolute disaster.” 

Learn about all the candidate running for president in 2020

Who is best suited to take on Trump?

In the final minutes of the debate, several of the contenders delivered sharpened pitches about how they believe they can defeat Mr. Trump.

“What Americans want is something different,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “I am going to be able to stand across from him on that debate stage and say to my friends in Iowa, the Midwest is not flyover country for me.”

Mr. Buttigieg highlighted his background as a military veteran.

“I’m ready to take on Donald Trump because when we get to the tough talk, and the chest thumping, he’ll have to stand next to an American war veteran and explain how he pretended bone spurs made him ineligible to serve,” he said.

Ms. Warren, as she often does, invoked her Republican brothers and noted her ability to find common ground with them. “They understand that we have an America right now that’s working great for those at the top,” she said. “It’s just not working for anyone else.”

And Mr. Biden referenced his months of clashes with Mr. Trump, who asked the government of Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden, helping to lead the president’s impeachment.

“I’ve been the object of his affection now more than anybody else on the stage,” he said. “I’ve taken all the hits he can deliver, and I’m getting better in the polls.”

Slideshow by photo services

Buttigieg is pressed on his weak support from black voters

Mr. Buttigieg faced the biggest question dogging his campaign: Why doesn’t he have more support from black Democrats? asked the moderator Abby Phillip.

“The black voters who know me best are supporting me,” he replied. “It’s why I have the most support in South Bend. It’s why among elected black officials in my community who have gotten into this race, by far most of them are supporting me. Now, nationally I’m proud that my campaign is co-chaired by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. And to have support right here in Iowa from some of the most recognizable black elected leaders.”

Of course, Mr. Buttigieg didn’t address his miniscule polling support from black voters in South Carolina — a huge vulnerability that could hurt his campaign if that weakness is not corrected soon.

Klobuchar and Sanders quietly disagree on climate change

Ms. Klobuchar said all the candidates’ climate plans pretty much the same. “Nearly every one of us has a plan that is very similar,” she said. “That is to get to carbon neutral by 2045 to 2050.”

Mr. Sanders disagreed, silently mouthing “no” and shooting his right arm into the air to demand the next speaking time.

“It’s a national crisis,” he said, proceeding to heap blame on the fossil fuel industry and demanding radical changes immediately, not 20 or 30 years into the future.

“If we as a nation do not transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, not by 2050, not 2040,” he said. “But unless we lead the world right now — not easy stuff — the planet we are leaving our kids will be uninhabitable and unhealthy.”

“Decency” is at stake in impeachment trial, Klobuchar said.

Ms. Klobuchar, who is set to be a juror in Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, said that the nation’s “decency” is at issue.

“This is a decency check on our government,” she said. “This is a patriotism check. Not only is this trial that, but also this election. And no matter if you agree with everyone on the stage, I say this to Americans, you know this is a decency check on this president.”

Ms. Klobuchar said that she has a “constitutional duty to perform,” and warned Republicans against standing in the way of requested witnesses.”

“When I look at what the issue is it’s whether or not we’ll be able to have witnesses,” she said. “We have asked for only four people as witnesses. And if our Republican colleagues won’t allow those witnesses, they may as well give the president a crown and a scepter, they may as well make him king.” 

The Democrats target Trump over impeachment.

Mr. Biden said he won’t remain embittered by Mr. Trump even after the impeachment trial over whether the president committed impeachable offenses in seeking foreign help to investigate Mr. Biden’s son.

“I have to be in a position I think of the American people,” Mr. Biden said. “I can’t hold a grudge. I have to be able to not only fight but also heal.”

Impeachment, almost uniquely among the Democratic candidates, leads to next to zero disagreement among the party’s presidential candidates. It’s not an issue that voters ask about on the campaign trail and has nothing to do with how the candidates would perform in office — since if any of them are president it would mean Mr. Trump is not.

Still, the impeachment trial due to begin next week will be a monster speed bump for the three senators on the debate stage: Ms. Klobuchar, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.

Ms. Warren said she would have no qualms in leaving the campaign trail to sit as a juror in Mr. Trump’s trial. “We have an impeachment trial — I will be there because it is my responsibility,” she said.

A question about free public college turns into a discussion about a wealth tax. 

The contrast on free college between Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren was about as gentle as can be.

Mr. Buttigieg used his response to a question about free college to blast the rich, saying they should pay the way for their children to attend public colleges and universities, while providing free college to everyone else.

Ms. Warren, in defending her free college proposal, said a wealth tax would require millionaires to pay millions of dollars in new taxes, and that if they wish to send their children to public universities, that’s fine with her. She did not ding Mr. Buttigieg for opposing free college.

“What we really need to talk about is the bigger economic picture,” she said. “We need to be willing to put a wealth tax in place. To ask the giant corporations that is are not paying to pay. Because that is how we build an economy and those who want to talk about, bring down the national debt.”

Child care takes center stage

Several of the candidates spoke at length about the exorbitant costs of child care and the personal toll it takes on Americans.

“It makes no sense for child care to cost two-thirds of somebody’s income,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “We have to drive it to 7 percent or below. And zero for the families who are living in poverty.”

Ms. Warren and Mr. Biden spoke in especially personal terms about child care — a financial responsibility that nearly brought her down, Ms. Warren said.

“If I hadn’t been saved by my aunt, I was ready to quit my job,” she said. “I think about how many women of my generation got knocked off the track and never got back on.” Mr. Biden, who said he believed that “people who are not able to afford any of the infant care to be able to get that care,” referenced his experience raising two sons after his wife and a baby daughter were killed in a 1972 car crash.

”I was a single parent too,” he said. “When my wife and daughter were killed, my two boys I had to raise, I was a senator, a young senator.”

A debate that reflects the muddled state of the race

Halfway through Tuesday’s debate, the conflict has been muted as the candidates have shown little inclination to attack each other while they aim to refocus ire against President Trump.

Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders each defused the clashes between them that dominated the last two days. Mr. Buttigieg didn’t take shots at Ms. Warren or Mr. Sanders about health care, despite the opportunity. And Mr. Biden has once again avoided being attacked by his opponents, despite leading every national poll of the race.

It’s a reflection of the muddled state of the race. With four candidates in a functional dead heat in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, there is little incentive for any of them to risk being seen in a negative light by going on the attack. The only candidate onstage who appeared eager to throw punches was Ms. Klobuchar, who remains in the high single digits in Iowa polling, leaving her well below the 15 percent threshold to accrue any delegates in Iowa’s Feb. 3 caucuses that are necessary to win the Democratic nomination.

Warren portrays Biden and Buttigieg as thinking small

Ms. Warren cast Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg as incrementalists on health care, saying that their proposals “are an improvement over where we are now,” but are only a “small improvement.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg support adding a public option to the health care system, but oppose the sweeping single-payer Medicare for all proposal.

“It’s just not true that the plan I’m proposing is small,” Mr. Buttigieg shot back. “We have to move past Washington mentality that suggests that the bigness of plans only consist of how many trillions of dollars they put through the Treasury. That the boldness of a plan consists of how many people it can alienate.”

Ms. Klobuchar also jumped into the fray, accusing Ms. Warren of offering shifting answers in her own health care proposal. “You acknowledge that Medicare for all, you couldn’t get there right away,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “You got on the bill that said on page eight that you would kick 149 million Americans off their current health insurance. Then a few months ago you said you’ll wait awhile to get there, and I think that was some acknowledgment that maybe what we’re talking about it is true.”

The top Democrats jockey over health care. 

There were more sparks between Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders on health care, with Mr. Biden whacking Mr. Sanders for his “Medicare for all” proposal.

“I think we need to be candid with voters and tell them what it will cost,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Sanders dodged a question about the overall costs of his health care proposal, seeking to reframe the question into what individuals would pay for health care rather than what it would cost the government.

“What I will tell you is Medicare for all which will guarantee comprehensive health care to every man, woman and child will cost substantially less than the status quo,” he said.

Ms. Warren, who is a proponent of Medicare for all, expressed her allegiance to the Affordable Care Act, the health care status quo that Mr. Sanders is campaigning to undo. “I will defend the Affordable Care Act,” Ms. Warren said. “I have a plan to expand health care. When we come to a general election, we may argue among each other about the best way to do health care. We’re going to be up against a Republican incumbent who has cut health care for millions of people in and still trying to do that. I’ll take our side of the argument any day. We’ll beat him on this.”

And Ms. Klobuchar came in with another roundhouse at Mr. Sanders, hoping to get drawn into the conflict between him and Mr. Biden.

“I think you should show how you’re going to pay for things, Bernie. I do. This president is treating people out there like poker chips in a bankrupt casino. The way he is adding to the debt,” she said.

Sanders and Warren clash over a disputed remark about a female president. 

Mr. Sanders emphatically insisted that he did not make the comment that Ms. Warren has attributed to him: That a woman could not be elected president.

“Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” he said. “And I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want.”

Ms. Warren said she disagreed with Mr. Sanders but sought to defuse the conflict.

“Bernie is my friend and I’m not here to fight with Bernie,” she said.

Ms. Warren continued, leaning fully into her electability argument.

“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. “And the only person who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years is me.”

The clash between Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders veered, briefly, into unusual territory: math.

The disagreement unfolded after Ms. Warren said that “the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”

“Well, just to set the record straight, I defeated an incumbent Republican running for Congress,” Mr. Sanders said.

“When?” Ms. Warren asked, appearing puzzled. Mr. Sanders said that in 1990, he beat a Republican congressman.

Ms. Warren pressed him again on the timing.” I said, “I was the only one who’s beaten an incumbent Republican in 30 years,” Ms. Warren said. “Well, 30 years ago is 1990, as a matter of fact,” Mr. Sanders replied.

Mr. Biden sought to bridge the divide about whether a woman can win by bemoaning the factionalism that he said could prevent Democrats from defeating President Trump. “The real issue is who can bring the party together and represent all elements of the party,” he said. “African-American, brown, black, women, men. Gay, straight. The fact of the matter is, I would argue that, in terms of endorsement around the country, endorsements where ever we go, I have the broadest coalition of anyone running up where in this race.”

Sanders and Warren split over trade.

Mr. Sanders defended his opposition to the U.S.M.C.A. North American trade deal, even though he said it is an improvement on Nafta.

“We can do much better than a Trump-led trade deal,” Mr. Sanders said. Pressed on whether he is willing to compromise at all on trade, Mr. Sanders pivoted to climate change.

“Every environmental organization in this country, including the Sunrise organization, who is supporting my candidacy, opposes it,” he said.

Ms. Warren followed by arguing that the U.S.M.C.A. is better than the status quo, and should be seen as the first step toward getting a better deal. “Let’s help the people who need help now,” she said. Asked why he disagrees with Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders said implementing the U.S.M.C.A. will “set us back a number of years,” though he passed on an opportunity to draw additional contrast with Ms. Warren. 

Biden jabs at North Korea — and Sanders joins in.

Mr. Biden mocked the North Korean regime, which has lashed Mr. Biden with graphic insults — and the former vice president received backup from his rival, Mr. Sanders.

“I would not meet with — absent preconditions, I would not meet with the, quote, Supreme Leader, who said ‘Joe Biden is a rabid dog, he should be beaten to death with a stick,’” Mr. Biden said.

“Other than that, you like him,” Mr. Sanders interjected wryly, referencing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“Other than that, I like him, and he got a love letter from Trump right after that,” Mr. Biden said

Sanders and Biden tangle over foreign policy judgment. 

Mr. Sanders took another opportunity to obliquely swipe at Mr. Biden’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq when asked about America’s role in the Middle East.

“What we have to face as a nation is that the two great foreign policy disasters of our lifetimes, with the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq. Both of those wars were based on lies,” Mr. Sanders said, adding that he feared President Trump could lead the nation into another war amid tensions between the United States and Iran.

Mr. Biden did not take on Mr. Sanders of Iraq, choosing to emphasize another element of his foreign policy record: the nuclear deal with Iran, achieved during the Obama administration. ”I was part of that deal to get the nuclear agreement with Iran, bringing together the rest of the world, including some of the folks who aren’t friendly to us,” Mr. Biden said. “And it was working.”

Should combat troops remain in Iraq? 

Another split in the candidates emerged on foreign policy. Ms. Warren, Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Sanders said they’d remove combat troops from Iraq, while Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Biden said they would leave some in place.

“I would leave some troops there, but not in the level that Donald Trump is taking us right now,” Ms. Klobuchar said.

Ms. Warren said that it is time to bring the troops home. “I think we need to get our combat troops out,” she said. “You know, we have to stop this mind-set that we can do everything with combat troops. Our military is the finest military on Earth. And they will take any sacrifice we ask them to take. But we should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily.”

And Mr. Buttigieg said: ““We can continue to remain engaged without having an endless commitment of ground troops. But what’s going on right now is the president’s actually sending more.”

The first question is about which candidate is best prepared to be commander in chief.

The moderator Wolf Blitzer opened the debate on foreign policy, asking Senator Bernie Sanders why he’d be the best commander in chief. Mr. Sanders wasted no time in going on the attack against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., drawing a contrast on foreign policy by reiterating his opposition to the Iraq War, and his 2002 vote against authorizing the conflict. That left Mr. Biden to defend his 17-year-old vote.

“I said 13 years ago it was a mistake to give the president the authority to go to war,” Mr. Biden said. “It was a mistake; I acknowledged that.” He then quickly mentioned that Barack Obama opposed the war from the state and noted that Mr. Obama chose him as his running mate.

“I think my record overall on everything I’ve ever done, I’m prepared to compare it to anybody on this stage,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Sanders shot back: “Joe and I listened to what Dick Cheney and George Bush and Rumsfeld had to say. I thought they were lying. Joe saw it differently.” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has sought to portray herself as a unifier while other candidates are drawing contrasts with each other, said the real issue is beating President Trump.

“What we should be talking about is what is happening right now with Donald Trump,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “Donald Trump is taking us pell mell toward another war.”

While Mr. Blitzer tried to pit Ms. Klobuchar against former Mayor Pete Buttigieg on the issue, the two moderate rivals barely engaged. Instead, Mr. Buttigieg, 37, drew an implicit contrast over age with Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders, who are in their late 70s. Mr. Buttigieg, a former Naval intelligence officer, stressed his own military experience while offering an unsubtle reminder of how long Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders have served in Washington.

“There are enlisted people that I served with, barely old enough to remember those votes on the authorization after 9/11 on the war in Iraq,” Mr. Buttigieg said.

The six candidates have taken the stage.

The six candidates have taken the stage. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were out first, and they gave each other a warm handshake and shared a few words. Elizabeth Warren was out next, shaking Mr. Biden’s hand and then reaching over to Mr. Sanders, who was looking elsewhere; he noticed her, smiled and joined in a handshake.

There was no evident tension in the moment, even though Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren spent Monday in a standoff over her accusation that he told her in 2018 that a woman could not win the presidency. He has denied the remark.

Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer and Amy Klobuchar rounded out the candidates taking their places onstage.

Finally, we could see a four-way battle

With less than three weeks before Iowa’s caucuses, tensions are rising among the top-tier candidates. The de facto truce between Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has evaporated in recent days, Mr. Sanders has attacked former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., remains the object of scorn from his top rivals.

For the first time in the 2020 campaign, there’s a real chance of a four-way battle royale live on the debate stage.

The strategy comes with significant risks. Iowans tend to dislike it when candidates go negative, and progressives are already blanching at the prospect of a prolonged Sanders-Warren conflict, given that many of them believe either candidate would be preferable to the more moderate Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg.

Yet candidates and their supporters remain on edge. The Sanders team has been caught off guard by a report, which Ms. Warren confirmed on Monday night but Mr. Sanders has denied, that Mr. Sanders told her in a private 2018 meeting that a woman could not win the presidency.

The conflict makes for good television — and CNN in past debates has sought out tensions between the candidates — but it doesn’t always lead to more affection from voters. The trick for candidates Tuesday night will be navigating attacks and counterpunches without undermining Democratic unity and catering to voters’ all-encompassing desire to defeat President Trump.

Biden and black voters

Mr. Biden often claims he’s not engaging in “hyperbole” — but as Democratic candidates work to appeal to voters of color, that’s exactly what he did as he highlighted his standing with those constituencies in an interview published Tuesday, hours before a debate for which only white candidates qualified.

“I get more support from black and brown constituents than anybody in this race. That’s where I come from. I come from the African-American community,” Mr. Biden, who is white, told The Sacramento Bee. “That’s my base. We’re the eighth largest black population (as a percentage) in the United States in my state. That’s how I got started.”

Those remarks came in response to a question about the all-white debate stage, a disappointment to many Democratic voters and activists who were energized by the diversity of the field at the outset of the campaign.

“I think there’s some really qualified people, but it’s the way, you know, the way the polls are running, the way things are moving,” Mr. Biden said. “I’m not sure this whole debate setup has made any sense anyway to begin with. But it is what it is. But I tell you what: If I’m elected president, I promise you my administration is going to look like America.”

The debate comes a day after Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, dropped out of the race, leaving just one black person — Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts — in the Democratic contest.

Polls do show Mr. Biden with a commanding lead among African-American voters over all, though the contest for younger black voters, as well as for Latino voters, is far more competitive, and Mr. Sanders in particular has shown strength with those constituencies.

What is party unity, anyway?

Ms. Warren’s top aides and her new surrogate Julián Castro have been telegraphing a message of unity, promoting Ms. Warren as the candidate who can bridge the party’s progressive and moderate wings.

That’ll be hard if she’s stoking a war with Mr. Sanders.

Ms. Warren is going to try anyway, having already adopted most of Mr. Sanders’s platform without some of his harder edges. She’s sure to be asked about reports in recent days that Sanders volunteers disparaged her election chances in calls to Iowa Democrats and the report, followed by her confirmation, that Mr. Sanders told her a woman could not be elected president.

There’s little evidence that Sanders supporters can be moved away from the Vermont senator, but it is incumbent upon Ms. Warren to demonstrate to moderate and undecided Iowans that she can appeal to all elements of the party and, as she often says in her remarks, win Republican votes for proposals like her wealth tax.

The senators will soon be spending a lot of time in Washington

As the House moves to send impeachment charges against Mr. Trump to the Senate for a trial, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren will soon be spending far more time in Washington than in Iowa.

The debate offers one of their best, last chances to make a big, televised impression from Iowa before the caucuses. Can they effectively take advantage of that opening?

Ms. Warren, who has a renowned campaign organization on the ground, and Mr. Sanders, who has a loyal fan base in Iowa, have some more cushioning — but both of them are locked in a tight race among a crowded top-four tier. They’ll both be looking for a defining performance that will stay with undecided voters in Iowa while they are off the trail.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg, the other two leading candidates in Iowa, who are competing with each other and Ms. Klobuchar for more centrist voters, will be free to campaign while their rivals are in Washington, and their supporters are eager to take advantage.

Warren releases a plan to cancel student loan debt

Hours before Tuesday’s debate, Ms. Warren released a plan to cancel student debt by executive action.

She argues that existing laws give the Education Department the authority to cancel federal loans as well as to issue them, and that as a result, she can direct the department to do so without congressional approval.

Essentially, she is proposing a more aggressive way of carrying out the student debt plan she released months ago, which would cancel up to $50,000 in debt for about 95 percent of borrowers.

She said she would instruct her education secretary to begin canceling debt on her first day in office, and “to amend any regulations or policy positions necessary to get there.” She said she had consulted with experts on the legality of her proposal, and attached a letter from lawyers at Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center that bolstered her case.

The proposal “will require clearing a lot of red tape,” Ms. Warren wrote. “But let’s be clear: Our government has cleared far bigger hurdles to meet the needs of big businesses when they came looking for bailouts, tax giveaways and other concessions.”

Reports of Klomentum may have been overstated

Coming off two strong debate performances and her strongest fund-raising quarter to date, Ms. Klobuchar expected an Iowa surge in the closing weeks before the Feb. 3 caucuses.

That hasn’t happened yet, and polls show she remains well below the viability threshold to capture delegates from Iowa.

One clear sign she’s not a factor: Nobody is attacking her. Other campaigns, which aren’t struggling for attention as Ms. Klobuchar often does, aren’t worried about her and are openly plotting at how to recruit her supporters on caucus night should she fail to reach the viability threshold.

Yet Iowa has a long history of late-charging surprise candidates. Just ask John Kerry in 2004 and Rick Santorum in 2012, who both rocketed from single-digit polling to win the state. For Ms. Klobuchar, time is running short, and Tuesday may be her last shot to make a case for herself.

Deval Patrick speaks out about the all-white stage

Mr. Patrick, the only black candidate remaining in the presidential race, is not be participating in Tuesday’s debate, and he is not taking his exclusion quietly.

“Tonight, six candidates will take the debate stage, all remarkable public servants,” Mr. Patrick, a former governor of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “Yet tonight America will not see herself in full.”

He was referring to the all-white debate line-up. As the Democratic field has been winnowed, the candidates on the stage no longer reflect a racial or ethnic cross-section of America.

Since December, three candidates of color have withdrawn — Senator Kamala Harris of California, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Julián Castro of Texas, the former housing secretary.

Two other nonwhite candidates, the tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, remain in the race but did not qualify to participate tonight under debate rules.

Who is the Des Moines Register reporter?

Alongside CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Abby Phillip, tonight’s debate moderators include Brianne Pfannenstiel, the newest chief politics reporter for The Des Moines Register. This is a unique job in journalism: Ms. Pfannenstiel covers a local contest with national implications (the Iowa caucuses), giving her unparalleled power for a reporter at a regional newspaper.

As a New York Times profile of her described, she and the paper are regularly sought out by campaigns to get their messages across to the only voters who matter right now.

She said she has a “dream job,” one where she feels she has a tangible impact. “I’m not just sending something out into the abyss,” she said. “People here in Iowa are actually going to caucus, and so what you write informs how they think about the candidates and the policies and issues, and it’s all real for them.”

She added, “It’s easy in political journalism to get caught up in the idea that it’s a game show or it’s all strategy, but getting to be the politics reporter for The Des Moines Register means that it’s all real.”

It’s the smaller debate voters wanted. But will they watch?

Between impeachment hearings, football playoffs and the holidays, TV audiences for that other national story line — the Democratic presidential primary — have been dwindling.

Candidates and cable television producers are hoping that tonight’s matchup in Iowa can reverse the trend.

Last month, 6.17 million people watched the Democratic debate on PBS — a 66 percent decline from the 18.1 million Americans who tuned in for the second night of primary debates in June. The December event was easily the smallest live audience for a presidential debate in 2019.

But Tuesday’s event, sponsored by CNN and The Des Moines Register, is shaping up as must-see-TV.

Only six candidates will appear, the fewest this election cycle, which is good news for Democratic voters who have complained about unwieldy debates featuring up to a dozen candidates.

The Democratic Party is promising a two-hour-long debate on Tuesday, including opening statements, a tighter schedule than past debates.

To prepare, an army of CNN producers has spent 10 days transforming Sheslow Auditorium, an intimate opera house on the campus of Drake University, into a futuristic soundstage.

The building’s stained-glass windows will be integrated into the broadcast. Seventeen cameras, and about 5,000 feet of lighting and power cable, were required for the production.

“It’ll be interesting to see if the candidates feel closer to the audience and if that makes them open up a little more,” Mark Preston, CNN’s vice president of political events, told The Register. “Perhaps it will.”

Where is Andrew Yang?

To close out the debate last month, Mr. Yang struck a self-aware note: “I know what you’re thinking, America,” he remarked. “How am I still on this stage with them?”

As it turns out, Mr. Yang will not be on the debate stage in Iowa on Tuesday night. After earning a spot in the first six Democratic debates, Mr. Yang failed to qualify for this one because he did not receive 5 percent support in enough qualifying polls.

Mr. Yang has urged the Democratic National Committee to commission more polls. And his campaign, emboldened by a high-profile poll of Iowa caucusgoers that was released on Friday, has sharpened its criticism of the D.N.C., arguing that if it had done its “due diligence,” Mr. Yang “would certainly be on the debate stage.”

Mr. Yang himself weighed in on Twitter on Monday: “I want us to be on that stage,” he wrote. “I think we earned it.”

The candidates are also making a heavy advertising push

The airwaves in Iowa’s four main media markets are growing increasingly crowded. Over the past week, 42 different political ads have aired in the state, $2.5 million worth of political advertising time.

Most of the ads reflect candidates’ central arguments. Senator Elizabeth Warren has spent more than $190,000 reminding voters that she doesn’t take money from big donors, and therefore wouldn’t sell administration jobs like “cushy ambassadorships.”

But in the past 24 hours, candidates have begun using more creative messages, trying to break through a very fluid field in Iowa and going beyond staid biographical ads.

On Monday, Mr. Sanders began airing an ad that featured a clip of John F. Kennedy describing the motivation behind going to the moon, then quickly transitioned to the voice of Mr. Sanders pitching his liberal platform as equally ambitious and achievable as landing on the moon.

And Tom Steyer, the self-funding billionaire who tops the Iowa spending charts with $12.5 million in the state, took aim at Mr. Trump’s wealth in a new 60-second ad that began airing on Tuesday. In the ad, which was surely designed to try to elicit a rebuke from the president, Mr. Steyer says he’s an “actual billionaire” while Mr. Trump is a “fake billionaire.”

Though Michael R. Bloomberg is airing ads nationally on CNN, there will be no political ads tonight during the commercial breaks airing nationally, as the cable network has refused to air a political ad during the debate, though a campaign could still buy in a local cable market that is out of CNN’s control.

Reporting was contributed by Nick Corasaniti, Michael M. Grynbaum, Stephanie Saul, Matt Stevens and Marc Tracy.


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