Debate Highlights: Candidates engage on foreign policy, impeachment and sexism

By Marc Caputo and Nolan D. McCaskill

Frayed alliances. Accusations of sexism. The smallest — and whitest — field yet. The pressure and plotlines surrounding Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, were unlike the six contests before it, with just three weeks until voting begins.

Though the number of candidates — six — lent itself to more interaction among them, most declined to draw sharp contrasts ahead of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.

Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar did seize on the opportunity to raise questions of sexism in the campaign, leading to exchanges where the candidates explored whether a woman could beat Donald Trump and win the presidency.

The issue led to the highlight of the night, when Warren said that Bernie Sanders told her a woman couldn’t win. He denied it. Hostilities seemed so high that, at one point, Warren appeared to refuse to shake Sanders’ hand.

For his part, Sanders all week has telegraphed his criticisms of Joe Biden for authorizing the Iraq War and once calling for Social Security cuts, an attack he ultimately shelved. And Pete Buttigieg, who’s essentially running in a four-way tie with the aforementioned candidates, was expecting more incoming from Amy Klobuchar, who savaged him in the last debate, but came out relatively unscathed.

One reason there weren’t many sharp exchanges: the candidates wanted to keep it Iowa nice.

The highlights are below.

Sanders denies saying a woman can't win, then mansplains Warren

The battle of the sexes is often a battle of hearing and meaning. And it played out on the debate stage Tuesday night.

Warren and Sanders not only couldn’t agree on whether he once told her a woman couldn’t win the White House, there was a dispute about their electoral scorecards.

Asked if he ever told Warren a woman couldn’t win, Sanders issued a flat denial.

“As a matter of fact, I didn't say it. 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. Anybody knows me knows that it's incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States,” Sanders said, pointing to his longstanding record and video of him advocating for women to run for president.

Sanders added that, in 2015, he “deferred” to Warren to run for president. And when she didn’t enter the race, he ran.

Warren, however, stood by her claim that Sanders did make the remarks.

When he said it, “I disagreed,” she said. “Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But, look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised and it’s time for us to attack it head-on. And I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people's winning record.”

She continued: “So, can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women, Amy and me.”

She paused for the applause, the biggest of the night up until that point.

“The only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me,” Warren added.

That bothered Sanders.

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

“When?” Warren asked.

“1990. That's how I won. Beat a Republican congressman,” Sanders said.

Warren appeared confused: “Thirty years ago. Wasn't it 30 years ago?”

Sanders repeated himself: “I beat an incumbent Republican congressman.”

Warren then repeated herself: “And I said, 'I was the only one who's beaten an incumbent Republican in 30 years.'”

“Well, 30 years ago is 1990, as a matter of fact,” Sanders said.

Who’s right? Sanders, technically. His election was in November 1990. That’s 29 years ago.


Warren-Sanders exchange leads to tense moment following debate

Although Sanders and Warren did not address the dust-up again for the remainder of the debate, a brief video of the senators interacting at the conclusion of the televised forum suggested tensions remained high.

As the Democratic contenders dispersed from the stage, Sanders extended his hand to Warren, which Warren appears to rebuff. The two competitors then engaged in a tense back-and-forth as fellow candidate Tom Steyer looked on, culminating in a seemingly bitter parting as Sanders raised his hands and turned away.


Biden acknowledges his 'mistake' on Iraq vote

Asked why he’s prepared to be commander in chief, Sanders made sure to burnish his bipartisan credentials by pointing out that he helped pass a resolution in Congress to stop U.S. support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.

And then he turned the screws on Biden, pointing out that he voted against the Iraq War in 2002 when Biden voted for it.

Biden, who has misrepresented his vote on the campaign trail, made sure to capitulate by saying the vote was a “mistake,” a word he went on to use five times.

“It was a mistake. And I acknowledged that,” Biden said before pivoting to how President Barack Obama, who was opposed to the war, chose him as his running mate in 2008 and then relied on him to draw down troops in Iraq. Biden also opposed surging troops in Afghanistan, a war powers vote that Sanders recently said was a mistake for him to vote for as well.

Then Sanders turned back to Biden’s Iraq War vote.

“Joe and I listened to what Dick Cheney and George Bush and [Donald] Rumsfeld had to say. I thought they were lying. I didn't believe them for a moment. I took to the floor [of the House]. I did everything I could to prevent that war. Joe saw it differently,” Sanders said.


Is Biden ready for Trump?

The question from debate moderator Abby Phillip was as tough a statement as a candidate might make: “Vice President Biden, the eventual nominee will face president Trump who has no problem mocking people using insulting nicknames, slinging mud and telling lies. The debate against him will make tonight's debate look like child's play. Are you prepared for that?

“I am prepared for that,” said Biden, before cracking a joke about how often the president has attacked him.

“Look,” he said, “I've been the object of his affection now more than anybody else on the stage.”

The crowd laughed.

“I've taken all the hits he can deliver, and I'm getting better in the polls — my going up,” Biden said, mentioning that he has strong African-American support and support from “working class people where I come from in Pennsylvania and the places I come from in Delaware.”

“I have support across the board and I'm not worried about taking on Donald Trump at all,” Biden said. “And with regard to the economy I can hardly wait to have that debate with him.”


Biden vows to heal divided nation after impeachment

Biden argued that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic Caucus had “no choice” but to impeach Trump for allegedly abusing his power and obstructing Congress, even if the Republican-led Senate will vote to acquit him. But he conceded that it will be harder to unite the country after the impeachment process is over.

“But look, you know, I understand how these guys are, this Republican Party. They’ve … savaged my surviving son, gone after me, told lies that your network and others won’t even carry on television because they’re flat-out lies,” Biden said. “And I did my job. The question is whether or not he did his job, and he hasn’t done his job.”

House Democrats began the process to impeach Trump last year after a whistleblower came forward with an allegation that the president sought to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating Biden and his son. Regardless of whether Trump attacks him, Biden added, the former vice president would have to put the American people first.

“I can’t hold a grudge,” he said. “I have to be able to not only fight but also heal, and as president of the United States, that’s what I’ll attempt to do, notwithstanding that there’s going to be more division after he’s defeated by me this next time.”