WASHINGTON - Six U.S. Democratic presidential candidates traded barbs with each other in a tense debate late Tuesday, attempting to make the case to voters in the farm state of Iowa that they alone have the political fortitude and skill to take on Republican President Donald Trump in the November national election.
With heightened world tensions between the U.S. and Iran, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist, quickly attacked the foreign policy credentials of the party's national front-runner for the presidential nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Sanders derided Biden's 2002 vote authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq on what proved to be erroneous American intelligence that deposed dictator Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction, while Sanders opposed the the 2003 invasion.
He said Biden voted for the "worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country."
Biden, who for years has said his Iraq vote was a mistake, countered that while he had erred, as former U.S. President Barack Obama's second in command, he worked to bring home more than 150,000 U.S. troops once stationed in Iraq and to end the conflict.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said that she, as a candidate early in her political career, also opposed the Iraq invasion, while accusing Trump of "taking us pell-mell toward another war," in the current conflict over the U.S. leader's changing rationale for ordering a drone strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
A key challenger to both Biden and Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a one-time Harvard law professor, and others said they would move to bring thousands of U.S. troops home from the Middle East, at odds with Trump's recent dispatch of more forces to the region. Warren said, "We have to stop this mindset that the answer" to world's trouble spots is to send U.S. troops overseas. Asked whether she would leave some combat troops in the Middle East, she replied: "No, we have to get them out."
Sanders said, "The American people are sick and tired of endless wars."
Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the only war-time veteran on the debate stage, said he could best serve as the country's commander in chief, because "the lessons of the past are personal to me." Wealthy environmentalist Tom Steyer contended that Trump "obviously has no strategy" in dealing with Iran and agreed with Biden that it would take the efforts of an international coalition to rein in its nuclear ambitions.
Tuesday's debate stage had the fewest number of candidates since the face-to-face encounters began last June. It was also the first with all white contenders, after black, Latino and Asian candidates have either dropped out of the race for lack of voter support and campaign money or failed to qualify for the debate stage.
It was the seventh debate, but the last before Democrats in rural Iowa in the U.S. heartland cast the first votes in the party's months-long nomination process, at night-time caucuses less than three weeks from now, on Feb. 3.
Contests in other states are just ahead on the political calendar. But Iowa, even though its predominantly white 3 million population is at odds with the increasingly racially diverse U.S. demographics, draws out-sized national attention because it is first in the once-every-four-years presidential sweepstakes.
Warren and Sanders sparred sharply over a private conversation they had more than a year ago in which Warren claims that Sanders questioned whether a woman can defeat Trump to become the first female U.S. president.
Sanders denied making the remark and said no one believes a woman can't win, noting that Democrat Hillary Clinton out-polled Trump by nearly 3 million votes in 2016, while losing the vote in the country's state-by-state electoral college system of electing presidents.
When she was asked what she thought when Sanders told her a woman couldn't defeat Trump in 2020, Warren responded: "I disagreed."
Warren said that the male candidates on the debate stage had collectively lost 10 elections during their lifetimes, while the two women, herself and Klobuchar, are undefeated.
Trump's incumbent status means Republicans are sure to nominate him to seek a second four-year term in the White House. But the Democratic race is highly unsettled.
Biden, now in his third race for the party's presidential nomination, leads national polls of Democratic voters, but possibly trails his Democratic opponents in Iowa and some other states. Should he falter early in the nominating process, that could dent his key campaign argument that according to national polls he stands the best chance of defeating Trump.
Last weekend's Iowa Poll indicates Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has surged to a narrow lead, with 20% support of those who say they will attend a caucus in three weeks. Warren, a progressive representing Massachusetts, is second at 17%, ahead of Buttigieg, who has fashioned himself as a political centrist, at 16%, and Biden, a left-of-center politician through nearly five decades in Washington, at 15%. But more than half of those polled said they could still decide to support a candidate other than the one they now prefer or have yet to make up their mind.
A separate Monmouth University poll showed a similar close contest among the four leaders, but with Biden ahead followed by Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren.
Klobuchar and Steyer both trail the four leaders in the pre-election Iowa polling, but qualified for the debate stage by meeting the polling and fundraising standards set by the national Democratic Party. Other Democratic candidates remain in a crowded field of presidential aspirants, but are not campaigning in Iowa, did not make the cut for the debate or have dropped out, including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey who left the race on Monday.
Trump has taken note of Sanders's recent ascent in opinion polls, saying in a Twitter comment over the weekend, "Wow! Crazy Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls, looking very good against his opponents in the Do Nothing Party. So what does this all mean? Stay tuned!"
For months Trump had focused singularly on Biden, with occasional barbs against Warren and Buttigieg, as his mostly likely 2020 opponent, to the extent that his concern about Biden is at the center of the impeachment case against Trump. The president's impeachment trial in the Senate trial is likely to start next Tuesday, only the third such impeachment trial in two and a half centuries of American history.
Trump is accused of trying to benefit himself politically by pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a late July phone call to launch an investigation of Biden, his son Hunter's work for a Ukrainian natural gas company and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to undermine Trump's campaign. His requests came at the same time he was temporarily withholding $391 million in military aid Kyiv wanted to help fight pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Trump eventually released the money in September without Zelenskiy launching the Biden investigations. That is proof, Republicans say, that Trump had not engaged in a reciprocal quid pro quo deal, the military aid in exchange for the Biden investigations.
Three of the leading Democratic challengers -- Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar -- could be directly affected by Trump's impeachment trial since they will be among the 100 members of the Senate, effectively sitting as jurors, deciding Trump's fate. That will keep them in Washington six days a week while the trial is going on, and importantly for them, off the campaign trail in Iowa to meet voters.
With a Republican majority in the Senate, Trump is all but assured of being acquitted and allowed to remain in office to face voters in November. But a full-blown trial, if witnesses are called to testify as Democrats and some Republicans want, could infuse unexpected new information about Trump and perhaps Biden into the last weeks of the Iowa contest.