Democrats set to clash in final debate before Iowa caucuses

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a town hall, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in Perry, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES, IA – Democrats are preparing for what could be their most contentious debate yet as the leading candidates gather in Iowa on Tuesday looking for a way to break out of the crowded top tier less than three weeks before the state's caucuses kick-start the presidential nomination process.

Some of the fiercest clashes could center on Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, fellow progressives who until now have largely avoided criticizing each other.

But Warren chastised Sanders over the weekend following a report that his campaign instructed volunteers to speak poorly of her to win over undecided voters. The tensions escalated on Monday after CNN reported Sanders told Warren in a private 2018 meeting that he didn't think a woman could win the election, a charge that Sanders vigorously denied but that Warren confirmed later Monday.

The feuding will likely expand to include nearly every candidate on stage. Sanders has recently stepped up his attacks on former Vice President Joe Biden over his past support of the Iraq War, broad free-trade agreements and entitlement reform, among other issues. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has had several strong debates, will be looking for another opportunity to highlight her candidacy as she remains mired in the middle of the pack in polling. Billionaire Tom Steyer will have to answer criticism that he's buying his way to the White House.

And with two surveys showing Pete Buttigieg losing support in Iowa, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, will need a breakout moment to regain some momentum before the Feb. 3 caucuses.

Those shifting dynamics mean Tuesday's debate could be unlike any of the others that came before it this cycle. The generally polite disputes over policy items including health care and immigration are poised to be replaced by increasingly bitter and personal knocks. And it will happen as many Democratic voters are just beginning to tune into the race.

“The debates are always important — but this one’s probably the most important for these candidates," said Scott Brennan, a former Iowa Democratic Party chair and current committeeman. "We’ve got at least four people who are bunched right there together at the top. So how do you break out?”

The debate, which is being held on the Des Moines campus of Drake University and will be televised on CNN, marks the first forum with an all-white lineup. Businessman Andrew Yang, an Asian American candidate who appeared in the December debate, failed to hit the polling threshold for Tuesday's event. And New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker ended his campaign on Monday after he didn't make the debate stage, leaving just one black candidate — former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — in the race.