Tonight’s Democratic Debate: What to Watch For

For the last year, the two leading liberals in the 2020 race have taken pains to avoid direct conflict. But in recent days there has been growing tension between Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are competing for left-leaning voters in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. Their relationship took a dramatic turn on Monday night as Ms. Warren accused Mr. Sanders of telling her, at a private one-on-one meeting in 2018, that he did not believe a woman could win the presidency.

So how will it all play on Tuesday’s debate stage?

The two candidates appear to be on a collision course.

Mr. Sanders and his campaign have vehemently denied that he made the remark, with his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, going so far as to call it a “lie.” Even if Mr. Sanders continues to steadfastly reject the remark, the issue threatens to revive anger among Democratic women who believe he did not do enough to aid Hillary Clinton after losing the Democratic presidential nomination to her in 2016.

Ms. Warren, who has trailed Mr. Sanders in recent polls, made the accusation in a statement on Monday night, but she also said she had “no interest in discussing this private meeting any further.” She may be pressed for details onstage, however, creating an opening for her to draw a sharper contrast with Mr. Sanders — or to keep questions about the meeting alive.

The story has injected a fresh layer of uncertainty and risk into the Democratic primary: Voters have so far recoiled from intraparty warfare, worried that such combat takes the focus away from defeating President Trump.

In December, Joseph R. Biden Jr. delivered perhaps his strongest debate performance to date. He spoke confidently about foreign policy, a subject area in which he is fluent and knowledgeable. He took swipes at Mr. Trump. And most significantly, he largely stayed out of the fray as several of his opponents battled one another.

Can he pull it off again?

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Biden has often been a shaky debater under the scrutiny of a front-runner’s spotlight. He has embarked on unusual tangents, strained to defend his record on issues like busing and struggled to respond crisply to even predictable questions and attacks. Those uneven debate performances have bothered some Democratic voters as they pondered which candidate could most effectively challenge Mr. Trump.

Now, less than three weeks before the caucuses, some polls suggest that Mr. Biden is gaining strength in the leadoff nominating state, where the race is fluid and competitive — making the stakes for a strong and reassuring debate performance even higher.

Yet he has been under particular attack recently from Mr. Sanders, who has targeted Mr. Biden’s Senate vote in 2002 to authorize military action in Iraq — an issue on which Mr. Sanders seems primed to try to bait his rival into a fight.

Back in November, Pete Buttigieg held a commanding lead in the gold-standard poll of Iowa conducted by The Des Moines Register and CNN.

Now he has fallen back in the pack, placing third in Friday’s Register/CNN poll and a Monmouth University poll released Monday. Mr. Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., has faced attacks about his fund-raising — including one from a voter at a town hall event Monday in Winterset, Iowa, who bemoaned Mr. Buttigieg’s California “wine cave” event in December — along with continued doubts about his ability to appeal to Democrats of color.

Alone in the field, Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign strategy is predicated on not just a strong Iowa performance, but also a victory in a state where conditions for his success are near-perfect: an older, tuned-in electorate of white voters longing to be inspired by the next new thing.

All of Mr. Buttigieg’s debate performances have been strong. The question for him on Tuesday is if a calm and informed debate showing is enough to move undecided Iowans to his side to pick up the few thousand caucusgoers who can make a difference between a first- and a fourth-place showing.

The Democratic field was once sprawling and diverse. But the candidates who have qualified for Tuesday night’s debate stage are all white and predominantly male, a disappointing dynamic for many voters and activists who are unenthusiastic about the prospect of supporting another white man for president.

Do the only two women remaining onstage, Ms. Warren and Senator Amy Klobuchar, remind voters that they still have a chance to make history by electing the first female president?

Ms. Warren, the only woman among the top-polling contenders, has appeared increasingly open to discussing gender in recent months — and the tensions with Mr. Sanders are likely to force the issue to the forefront.

And Ms. Klobuchar has freely discussed the challenges that female candidates face in the race. “Women are held to a higher standard,” she said at the November debate.

Many Democratic voters also believe that sexism played a role in Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in 2016 — and some worry that another female nominee would also be vulnerable to sexist attacks.

The debate will unfold a day after Senator Cory Booker dropped out of the race, leaving just one African-American candidate — former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts — in the contest.

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