Jeanne Zaino: Iowa Democratic debate – Winners and losers

The six Democratic presidential candidates who met for a televised debate in Iowa Tuesday night – the last before the state’s all-important caucuses Feb. 3 – focused most of their attacks on President Trump, with only a few fiery exchanges with each other.

With no clear front-runner, rising tensions and high stakes, the debate led many to expect it would be a truly memorable clash – one when the gloves would finally come off.

Instead, we saw a gathering of ladies and gentlemen who politely disagreed on a number of issues but who did not turn the debate into an angry brawl.

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The debate at Drake University in Des Moines was far more tame and congenial than heated. Anyone expecting that the back-and-forth between Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont over the last few days would boil over was sorely disappointed.

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And anyone who thought that given recent tension with Iran and the focus on foreign policy that perhaps former Vice President Biden was going to have to spend much of the night defending his support for the Iraq War against the doves on the stage was left wanting.

Biden acknowledged he was wrong to support the start of the war under Republican President George W. Bush when Biden was a senator, but the discussion quickly moved on.

No one came out swinging, not even former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who polls suggest really needed to make their case.

The subdued debate so close to the caucuses can mean only one thing – the impact of the debate on the polls will be negligible at best.

This isn’t to suggest the debate lacked substance. In the first hour candidates were asked everything from their views on Iran and troop withdrawals from the Middle East, to trade, nuclear weapons, and whether a woman can be elected president.

In the second hour, the candidates were given the opportunity to address issues of the environment and climate change, health care, child care, the cost of a college education, and the impeachment of President Trump before making their closing arguments.

And when it was all over, the winners and losers of the night were:

WINNERS

BIGGEST WINNER – Bernie Sanders

When you’re ahead in the polls the only rule going into a debate is to not make any unforced errors. Bernie Sanders has stunned many just months after a major heart attack by breaking fundraising records. Tuesday night was no exception, with the Sanders team reporting they raised more money in the first hour of the debate than ever before.

And Sanders currently leads in some of the latest Iowa and New Hampshire polls, although many voters say they could change their minds in the final days leading up to voting in the two early states.

Tuesday was the first night when Sanders went into debate as the front-runner. Normally this means he should have been the one not just taking center stage but more of the criticism, but he managed to avoid that with one exception.

The exception was the claim by Warren that Sanders had told her in a private meeting in 2018 that he didn’t believe a woman could be elected president. It was, quite literally, a he-said-she-said situation, with Warren standing by the claim and Sanders denying he ever made the comment.

Sanders, who lost the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 to Hillary Clinton, said that since Clinton won more than 3 million popular votes than Donald Trump in the general election – although losing in the Electoral College – it would be absurd for him to claim a woman could not be elected president.

The attack on a woman’s electability seems to fizzle, and in any case, it seems hard to believe that this will be a major issue determining who voters support in the Democratic nominating contests.

Given that no one laid a glove on him, Sanders remains the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – a formidable fundraiser with a huge following that looks likely to serve him well in Iowa and beyond

WINNER – Joe Biden

Biden just seems to get better with every debate – not great mind you, but better. He proved that again Tuesday night. He’s not leading in the state polls in Iowa or New Hampshire, but he is still leading in South Carolina and nationally.

More importantly, Biden seems to have a Teflon character in this race – surviving some really poor early debate performances and improving as he goes. Whether he wins Iowa or not – and the likelihood is he won’t -- he is in the for the long haul and his performance Tuesday night proved that he has the moderate wing of the party locked up at this point.

 WINNER – Amy Klobuchar

The senator from Minnesota is an authentic Midwesterner and she put that on full display during the debate. She was tough on Trump, which is what most Democrats want and she proved tonight that when it comes to the moderate lane, she is a strong competitor for Buttigieg.

Klobuchar doesn’t have the poll numbers or fundraising prowess of the top tier, but she has two things in her favor. She gave a good enough performance that – as something of a regional favorite –may enable her to do better than expected in the caucuses.

Under Iowa’s complicated caucus system, second choices matter because candidates with little support must drop out before a second round of voting.  Klobuchar could be the second choice of enough voters to enable her to make a respectable showing in the caucuses.

WINNER – President Trump

While the Democrats were battling it out in Iowa, Trump was campaigning where they should have been – in the swing state of Wisconsin.

None of the Democratic candidates can be held responsible for this, but it shows the Democratic primary process is broken.

As billionaire presidential candidate and former New York City Mike Bloomberg has pointed out, the candidates he is running against are spending huge chunks of their time and money in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, although Iowa will likely vote for Trump in November, rather than focusing on swing states that will matter in the general election.

Bloomberg – who didn’t appear in the debate because he is self-funding his campaign and so can’t meet the target for fundraising from other contributors – is skipping the four early nominating contests and concentrating and vote-rich states that cast ballots afterward.

Democrats will have to figure out after the election if they want to continue devoting so much attention to the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

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LOSERS

BIGGEST LOSER – Pete Buttigieg

There was a lot at stake for Buttigieg, who ended his term as mayor of South Bend, Ind., on Jan. 1 and is now a full-time campaigner.

The former mayor is struggling in the polls and he has staked his campaign on a strong showing in Iowa. It wasn’t that he had a bad night Tuesday. It was – as is the case with Klobuchar – that he didn’t do enough to change the dynamics of the race.

As the only military veteran on stage, Buttigieg had ample opportunity when it came to foreign policy, which dominated much of the first hour. Yet he was unable to make much headway either there or on the issue of health care, where he tried to stake out a pragmatic path.

LOSER – Elizabeth Warren

Warren is always a strong debater, and she proved that again Tuesday night. What she didn’t do was to capitalize on the back-and-forth which her campaign started with Sanders regarding statements she claims he made about the electability of a female presidential candidate.

Tuesday night was an opportunity for Warren to show progressives that she – not Sanders – is the real deal. She was unable to do that.

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LOSER – Tom Steyer

Billionaire Steyer gets credit for qualifying for the debate and for avoiding any questions regarding the fact that he bought his way on to the debate stage. He also performed better than he did in the last debate.

Despite that, Steyer did little to change the dynamic in the race. He certainly has the money to continue – but at some point Democrats are right to ask if his money would be better spent supporting other candidates or causes.

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