WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, separated by a razor-thin polling margin ahead of the upcoming Iowa caucus, tangled over their foreign policy differences during Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate.
Amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran, Biden, Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and billionaire activist Tom Steyer used the first debate of the year to make the case for being the best positioned to take on the role of commander in chief.
The debate — held in Des Moines, Iowa, ahead of the state's high-stakes Feb. 3 caucuses — also featured animated exchanges surrounding the electability of female candidates, the upcoming impeachment trial of President Donald Trump and a number of domestic economic issues.
The two-hour debate kicked off with questions about the future role of U.S. forces in the Middle East in the wake of last week’s retaliatory airstrike by Iran against U.S.-occupied military bases in Iraq. Iran’s strike, which resulted in no U.S. casualties, came in response to the Trump-ordered U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian military official on Iraqi soil.
Sanders, the first candidate to be asked about his preparedness to command the U.S. military, used the opportunity to repeat his criticism of Biden’s October 2002 vote in support of authorizing the Iraq War when he was a U.S. senator from Delaware.
“Joe and I listened to what Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld said, and I thought they were lying,” Sanders said, referring to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “I did what I could to end that war, but Joe saw it differently.”
Biden responded that he has said for the past "13 years" that “it was a mistake to give the president the authority to go to war … It was a mistake. I acknowledged that.”
Biden then touted his national security work under former President Barack Obama. And invoking his late son, Beau Biden, who served in the military, Biden said, “I know what it’s like to send a son and daughter” to war.
Asked if he would pull American forces out of the Middle East, Biden said he would leave “small numbers” of troops in the region.
Klobuchar said she would “leave some troops there.” Buttigieg, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer who served in Iraq, said, “We can continue to remain engaged without having an endless commitment of ground troops.”
Warren, differing from the moderates on the stage, said, “We need to get our combat troops out.”
The caucuses will be the first presidential contest in the nation, while New Hampshire primary voters head to the polls on Feb. 11.
Biden holds a tight lead over Sanders in Iowa ahead of the caucuses, according to an analysis of recent polls by the poll tracking website RealClearPolitics.
According to the site, Biden leads in the state with 20.7% support, followed by Sanders, 20.3%; Buttigieg, 18.7%; and Warren, 16.1%. Klobuchar is polling at an average of 7%, while Steyer is pulling an average of 2.7%.
In the debate, Warren and Sanders, both competing for support from the Democratic Party’s left-of-center progressive wing, were asked about a report that Sanders, in a private conversation with Warren in 2018, questioned whether a female candidate could defeat Trump.
On Tuesday, Sanders said “of course a woman can win,” and insisted he never told Warren otherwise.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” Sanders said. “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.”
Warren said she “disagreed” but noted that “Bernie is my friend, and I’m not here to fight with Bernie.”
Warren and Sanders also offered opposing views on the Trump administration’s North American trade deal dubbed USMCA.
“We can do much better than a Trump-led trade deal,” Sanders said.
Warren argued that the new trade agreement, meant to replace the Clinton-era NAFTA, was the first step toward creating a more favorable deal for farmers and American manufacturers.
“Let’s help the people who need help right now,” Warren said.
The debate occurred hours after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced House Democrats will send the articles of impeachment against Trump to the Senate this week. The move will allow the GOP-controlled Senate to begin Trump’s impeachment trial.
Biden, asked if it will be harder to run against Trump if he is acquitted, said voters will care most about who can best perform the job of president.
“The question is whether or not he did his job, and he hasn’t done his job,” Biden said.
Senate Republican leaders have said the trial could start as early as Jan. 21, and could take at least two weeks. That would keep Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar and long-shot candidate Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado off the Iowa campaign trial.
Asked about the trial, Klobuchar insisted Senate Republicans should support Democrats in calling additional witnesses to testify, a move that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has resisted.
"They may as well give the president a crown and a scepter. They may as well make him king,” Klobuchar said.
The debate featured the least racially diverse display of candidates of the seven debates held so far, after the recent withdrawals of Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
Aside from the six candidates on Tuesday’s debate stage, six others remain. They are Bennet, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Rep. John Delaney, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.