The final Democratic presidential debate of 2019 may have taken place in California, but it was all about Iowa.
Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren are banking on a strong performance there on the path to the nomination. They showed that on Thursday, with a series of clashes aimed squarely at voters in the first state to vote in the Democratic nominating process.
Two other leading candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are running national campaigns. They’d both like to win Iowa, but, in part because of Biden’s strength with voters of color and Sanders’ popularity elsewhere, they still have a path to the nomination if they don’t win there.
And it showed: Aside from pro forma clashes with each other over health care and Iraq, the two largely stayed out of the fray. Biden delivered his most confident performance to date, and Sanders (along with Andrew Yang) brought some humor, joking at one point that Klobuchar “took my name in vain. She hurt my feelings. I’m crushed. Can I respond?”
Here are eight takeaways from the sixth Democratic debate:
The ‘wine cave’ moment
Buttigieg faced the kind of sustained criticism he’d largely avoided during his rise to the top of the polls in Iowa.
Warren and the South Bend, Indiana, mayor have been circling each other for weeks, but what played out on Thursday night showed how the two candidates – both of whom have strong operations in Iowa – see their paths to the Democratic nomination as running through the other.
Their most ferocious clash yet started with the senator from Massachusetts, who does not hold private fundraisers and relies on online donors, implicitly criticizing her rivals for holding big-dollar fundraisers and allowing wealthy donors to “drown out the voices of everyone else.”
It was clear she was needling Buttigieg, and he responded: “This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump, and we shouldn’t do it with one hand tied behind our back.”
Warren quickly highlighted a recent Napa Valley fundraiser Buttigieg held in a “wine cave,” where the mayor talked to donors under a chandelier with 1,500 Swarovski crystals.
“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren said.
Buttigieg responded by pointing out that Warren had held high-dollar fundraisers as a Senate candidate last year, and that her decision to no longer do so is a new one.
“You know, according to Forbes magazine, I’m literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire,” Buttigieg said. “So this is important. This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.”
The exchange kicked off a night where Buttigieg took significant incoming from his fellow Democrats, but also proved that he is able to dish it out even if his time on the national scene pales in comparison with that of his rivals.
Klobuchar attacks Buttigieg’s experience
In the other memorably personal exchange of the night, Klobuchar unloaded on Buttigieg for a comment he’d made during the November debate, when he had needled his rivals for having “more than 100 years of Washington experience.”
The senator from Minnesota looked at Buttigieg and told him he should “respect our experience” – and then began highlighting the resumes of other candidates.
She pointed to Warren’s role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Biden pushing his cancer moonshot, Sanders striking deals for veterans’ care and her own role in negotiating farm bills.
And then she laid a trap for Buttigieg.
“The point is, we should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show that they’ve gathered the support that you talk about of moderate Republicans and independents,” she said. “I think a track record of getting things done matters.
Buttigieg fired back: “If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80% of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”
But South Bend is an overwhelmingly Democratic city and there was never real question that Buttigieg would coast to reelection.
Often omitted from Buttigieg’s political resume, though, is his first run for office, a failed bid for Indiana state treasurer in 2010. Klobuchar gleefully highlighted it.
“If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing. You tried and you lost by 20 points,” she said.
She was slightly off. He’d lost by 25 percentage points.
A confident Biden
After a series of unsteady debates, Biden was the most comfortable on Thursday that he’s been on the debate stage to date, a sign of renewed confidence in his status at the top of the Democratic pack nationally – and that the smaller debate stage suits him.
The former vice president was forceful during an exchange with Sanders on health care. He handled a question about his age with ease. And when pressed about his assertion that Republicans would have an “epiphany” after Trump left office – a sentiment his rivals have mocked – Biden delivered a strong answer, noting that after months of attacks on his son Hunter Biden, he more than anyone else has reason not to like or trust Republicans.
Biden ducked a question about whether he would run for a second term, saying he’s “not going to commit one way or another” right away if he’s elected in 2020.
“Let’s see where we are. Let’s see where we are,” he said. “But it’s a nice thought.”
It was a notable noncommitment for Biden, who is 78 and would be the oldest person ever elected president. His position is that he rejects the hubris of committing to a second campaign before he’s won his first – but that he also wouldn’t be willing to turn himself into a lame duck by opening the door to a one-term presidency.
It’s a different approach than Trump has taken. His reelection campaign was up and running immediately upon him taking office in 2017.
Sanders vs. Biden on health care
Health care dominated the early portions of the first Democratic debates. On Thursday night, it was relegated to the third hour – and it played out with a much shorter exchange between Sanders and Biden, with the senator from Vermont advocating his signature “Medicare for All” single-payer proposal and Biden backing a plan that builds on Obamacare and maintains a role for private health insurers.
It started when Sanders was asked if – given the reality that Senate Republicans would oppose his plan – he would push any smaller measures in the more immediate future. He wouldn’t play ball, saying, “I think we will pass a Medicare for All single-payer system.”
Biden then advocated his own plan, which would add a public option to Obamacare and lower the caps on how much of their income Americans would pay for insurance on the exchanges.
“You shouldn’t have Washington dictating to you you cannot keep the plan you have,” Biden said.
Sanders responded that Biden’s plan “would essentially maintain the status quo.” Biden shot back that Sanders’ proposal would come with $30 trillion in new expenses over a decade and would necessitate tax increases.
Sanders pointed out that in exchange for those taxes, Americans would no longer have to pay copays, insurance premiums or deductibles, and would have prescription drug costs capped at $200 per year.
At one point, Biden stopped and said to his animated foe: “Put your hand down for a second, Bernie.”
“Just waving to you, Joe,” Sanders responded.
Klobuchar wants to make a move
To date, the senator from Minnesota has been slowly and steadily gaining traction in Iowa, the state she’s pinning her hopes on entirely.
But Klobuchar remains well behind the top tier in the Democratic primary and it was clear on Thursday night that she viewed the debate as one of her last opportunities to close the gap.
She was – by far – the most eager candidate to interject, not wanting to miss a moment or an issue.
“Could I respond?” Klobuchar said off-camera during a conversation about college affordability.
“Could I answer the question?” she said during a conversation about integrating people with disabilities into local communities.
Her efforts to become a central figure in the debate worked: She got more talking time than anyone else in its first hour, during which she often commanded the conversation, and she finished second in talk time overall.
“I did not come here to listen to this argument,” Klobuchar said at one point after Biden and Sanders had fought over health care. “I came here to make a case for progress.”
Andrew Yang shows he belongs
A year ago, Yang was an unknown businessman who was all but pleading with people to take him seriously.
On Thursday, Yang proved he belonged on the stage – particularly because of his ability to cut through politics and policy in humanizing terms.
This was clearest when he was asked about being the only person of color on the stage, something that happened after Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro failed to qualify for the debate and Sen. Kamala Harris of California dropped out of the race.
“It’s both an honor and disappointment to be the lone candidate of color on the stage tonight,” said Yang, who is Asian.
“I miss Kamala. I miss Cory,” Yang said, before adding with a smile, “although I think Cory will be back.”
The line drew huge applause in the hall and allowed Yang to then note that he had been the subject of racist slurs when he was young but to add that “black(s) and Latinos have something much more powerful working against them than words.”
Yang also used his time to make questions about policy personal. When asked about strife in Hong Kong, he mentioned that he has family there. When asked whether he would pass a legislative fix on immigration, Yang said, “Of course I would. I’m the son of immigrants myself, and I know that Dreamers are essentially Americans in everything but this legal classification.”
Yang closed his debate with the same tone – and a self-aware nod that his candidacy has been entirely unlikely.
“I know what you’re thinking, America,” he said with a smirk. “How am I still on this stage with them?”
Billionaire status check
Investor and Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer was in the debate, wearing his standard tartan tie.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not.
And the two billionaires who are spending vast sums on television ads to register in the single digits in polls were both far, far from the action – playing no real role in shaping the conversation onstage, at least not on Thursday night.
Gifts or forgiveness?
The debate closed with a seasonal question: Would you rather give a gift to one of your opponents or ask for forgiveness from them?
Of the seven candidates on the stage, only two asked forgiveness and apologized. It was the women on the stage – Warren and Klobuchar.
Warren apologized for the fact that she can “get really worked up.”
“I don’t really mean to,” she said.
Klobuchar asked for forgiveness for “any time any of you get mad at me.”
“I can be blunt. But I am doing this because I think it is so important to pick the right candidate here,” she said.
The male candidates took a different tack and offered their opponents gifts, including their own books.
“I wrote a book on it and if you like data, this book is for you,” Yang said before he paused and said, “This goes for the people at home too, if you like data and books.”