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How 2020 Democrats fared in final debate before Iowa caucuses

Six candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination met on stage in Iowa Tuesday night for the final debate before the state’s caucuses in early February. Electability was a prominent theme, as the candidates sparred over who would be able to beat President Trump in November. Amna Nawaz reports and Judy Woodruff talks to Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson about how Iowa voters are reacting.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last night, six Democratic candidates for president met on the debate stage in Iowa, the last debate before the Iowa caucuses.

    It was the smallest and it was the whitest group of candidates so far.

    Our Amna Nawaz brings us this report.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The debate ended on an awkward note, with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren seemingly rejecting a handshake from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

    That was after moderators brought up a disagreement between the two over a private conversation in December of 2018, in which Sanders reportedly told Warren he didn't believe a woman could win the election.

  • Question:

    Why did you say that?

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't say it.

    In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Senator Warren. There was a movement to draft Senator Warren to run for president. And you know what? I said — stayed back. Senator Warren decided not to run, and I then — I did run afterwards.

    Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?

  • Question:

    You're saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    That is correct.

  • Question:

    Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    I disagreed.

    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. So, can a woman beat Donald Trump?

    Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren:

    The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women…

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren:

    … Amy and me.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.:

    So true.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The issue of electability who can actually beat President Trump in November, came up throughout the night.

    At one point, each candidate was asked to address a vulnerability.

    For former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Buttigieg, it was his lack of support from black voters.

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    The black voters who know me best are supporting me. It's why I have the most support in South Bend. It's why, among elected black officials in my community who have gotten into this race, by far, most of them are supporting me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Businessman Tom Steyer pushed back on the perception that he's buying his way into the election.

  • Tom Steyer:

    I started a business by myself in one room. I didn't inherit a penny from my parents.

    But whoever is going to beat Mr. Trump is going to have to beat him on the economy. And I have the experience and the expertise to show that he's a fake there and a fraud.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar reiterated that her regional roots make her the best match for President Trump in November.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar:

    I am going to be able to stand across from him on that debate stage and say to my friends in Iowa, the Midwest is not fly-over country for me. I live here.

    I'm going to be able to look at him and say, you have treated these workers and farmers like poker chips. For me, these are my friends and these are my neighbors.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The debate focused heavily on foreign policy, with candidates saying they would take a much different approach on Iran from Mr. Trump.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

  • Joseph Biden:

    We have lost our standing in the region. We have lost the support of our allies. The next president has to be able to pull those folks back together, reestablish our alliances, and insist that Iran go back into the agreement, which I believe, with the pressure applied, as we put on before, we can get done.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The candidates also touched on child care, higher education, and impeachment.

    With polls showing a four-way split between Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg, it still remains to be seen who will come out on top when Iowans caucus on February 3.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And here to analyze last night's debate and tell us how Iowans are reacting to it, I'm joined by O. Kay Henderson. She is the news director at Radio Iowa, and she joins us from Des Moines.

    O. Kay Henderson, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, what kinds of reactions are you picking up from people?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    One of the striking things about the conversation between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders that I'm hearing from Iowans is, it's not necessarily about the two of them. It's more about reaching out to former Clinton voters.

    As you recall, half of the people who went to the caucuses in 2016 voted for Hillary Clinton.

    As I go out and covered many of these candidates, namely, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and the former candidate Kamala Harris, I heard from many in the crowd this phrase, it's time for a woman in the White House.

    And that conversation really reminded people of that. The other interesting thing about that conversation was that Elizabeth Warren drew Amy Klobuchar into it.

    And so I think that was a signal to people, if voting for a woman candidate is important to you, and I am not your woman, Elizabeth Warren may have been telegraphing, consider the woman at the other end of this stage, if you're a moderate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So maybe this was a good night for Elizabeth Warren?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    In visiting with people who are her supporters, they were thrilled with her. In visiting with people who sort of are uncommitted, albeit, most of the electorate, the majority of the electorate, if you look at that Iowa poll, 58 percent of people either have not made up their mind or they could change and support a different candidate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    She was making her points cogently.

    The Buttigieg people are thrilled with his performance. He was able to compare and contrast during the conversation that Vice President Biden and Senator Sanders had about the Iraq War that that vote was a long time ago. It was in 2002.

    So that is the core of his message, that he's a forward-looking candidate. And he made that point during the debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So any of the campaigns concerned as a result of last night?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    Well, obviously, there's always 20/20 vision, and they might have wished that they had made a point, but now it's the rush to February 3.

    And if you're one of those three senators, you're now stuck in Washington, perhaps for days on end, at an impeachment trial.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    And so the Sanders and Warren camps are going to have to rely on the people that have been on the ground for them for a year and, in the case of Sanders, for several years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, at this point, Kay Henderson — you have been covering politics in the state of Iowa for a long time.

    What is uppermost in the minds of voters? And I'm not asking — you can't speak for everybody, but what are you hearing?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    Right. Exactly.

    Well, what has struck me is that many people who tell me they're undecided, they're either comfortable with their choices, in that they tell me, I could pick any of these people, namely, the front-runners, and be comfortable that they would be a good standard-bearer for the party.

    And then you have these other folks that you visit with — and they are almost petrified of making this choice and making the wrong choice, because, as you well know, Judy, every nominee that the Democratic Party has picked in this century has won the Iowa caucuses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right. So, they feel the weight of history on their shoulders.

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, Kay Henderson, some comment about the fact that at this point on the debate stage — and we know there are other candidates running who didn't qualify for the debate.

    But at this point, we're looking at a non — a pretty non-diverse group, no person of color. Is that coming up in conversation?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    It is, especially among the folks who supported Kamala Harris. And then, most recently, we had Cory Booker drop out of the race.

    And you have that Booker camp, which was really allied behind their candidate, and other candidates are looking at those folks and wondering where they're going to go in this race.

    And so part of the calculation here in the closing days is, how do you convince people who had been supporting and really fervently supporting those two candidates to come into another fold?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the days are growing shorter. We're getting ever closer.

    Kay Henderson, thank you very much.

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    Thank you.

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