US former vice president Joe Biden (L) and liberal Senator Bernie Sanders were two of the six candidates expected to clash during the final Democratic presidential debate before Iowa begins the voting process on February 3, 2020
Des Moines (United States) (AFP) - The gloves will be off when six Democrats take the stage on Tuesday in the final debate before voters in Iowa kick off the process of choosing an opponent for Republican Donald Trump in November's presidential election.
Former vice president Joe Biden, the establishment candidate, is leading nationally ahead of the February 3 caucuses in the midwestern US state, but no clear frontrunner has emerged.
Biden, 77, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are in a dead heat in the Iowa polls followed closely by former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire California activist Tom Steyer will round out the field for the nationally televised debate to be held in Des Moines, the Iowa capital.
The debate, which is to begin at 9:00 pm Eastern Time (0200 GMT Wednesday) will feature the smallest field yet -- and its whitest, with no people of color qualifying for the first time in the 2020 race.
The Democratic Party last year hailed its historically diverse presidential lineup, but minority candidates have fallen by the wayside, the latest being African-American Senator Cory Booker, who dropped out on Monday.
With the Iowa vote less than three weeks away, each candidate will be scrambling for a breakout moment that could translate into the first tangible victory in a tight contest.
After avoiding open confrontation so far, the two leading liberals, Sanders and Warren, engaged in open sniping on Monday which could carry over to the debate stage.
CNN reported that Sanders told Warren in a private meeting in late 2018, as they both contemplated presidential runs, that he did not believe a woman could defeat Trump.
The 78-year-old Sanders denied it.
"It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn't win," Sanders said.
Warren said that was indeed what Sanders told her.
"I thought a woman could win; he disagreed," she said in a statement.
- 'Feud brewing?' -
Sanders also reportedly chided Warren as the candidate of the elite, with Politico saying that Sanders volunteers had been instructed to tell voters that she could not expand the Democratic base in a general election.
The 70-year-old Warren said she was "disappointed" by the report that Sanders had urged volunteers to "trash" her.
"I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction," she said.
Fortified by his showing in recent polls despite suffering a heart attack last November, Sanders also went on the offensive against frontrunner Biden.
Sanders criticized then-senator Biden's vote in support of going to war in Iraq, a subject that has gained renewed interest following Trump's order to kill a top Iranian general in Baghdad and the subsequent fallout.
"It is appalling that after 18 years Joe Biden still refuses to admit he was dead wrong on the Iraq War, the worst foreign policy blunder in modern American history," Sanders senior advisor Jeff Weaver said in a statement.
The debate risks being overshadowed by another historic political drama: Trump's looming impeachment trial in the US Senate, which -- if it begins later this week or next -- would force four presidential candidates to stay in Washington serving as jurors in the proceedings.
Polling is tight in Iowa, with Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren all separated by just 4.7 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.
With Iowans fretting over who would be best positioned to defeat Trump, the race is volatile; each of the top four candidates has led at least one major state poll in the last two months.
Biden was lagging in Iowa in November, perhaps buffeted by Trump pressuring Ukraine to open investigations into him and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
But Biden has proved resilient, and the latest poll, by Monmouth University, showed him leading in Iowa.
With Sanders and Warren clashing over who could best carry the progressive torch, Trump weighed in: "Elizabeth is very angry at Bernie," he tweeted. "Do I see a feud brewing?"
Trump also highlighted Sanders' strong poll performance and asked: "So what does this all mean?"
"It means you're going to lose," Sanders tweeted back.