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Democrats offer substance but few fireworks for undecided voters at seventh debate

David Catanese, Alex Roarty and Emily Cadei, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- Instead of a Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren showdown, the seventh and final Democratic presidential primary debate before voting begins delivered stacks of substance and few fireworks.

After growing signals that the detente between the two progressive senators was ending, both sought on Tuesday to deescalate tensions that had inflamed over a report that Sanders told Warren a woman couldn't be elected president. Sanders continued to deny the claim, while Warren attempted to wield the controversy as a rallying cry for women to join her candidacy. Instead of joining the fight, they walked away from it.

That dynamic was a major theme of the night. Less than three weeks before the leadoff Iowa caucuses, the name of the Des Moines debate game was caution. None of the six candidates on stage produced a runaway victory, but none of the top contenders appeared to harm their standing in a race that remains fluid.

Here are five takeaways from the debate:

FOREIGN POLICY TAKES CENTER STAGE

In something of a surprise, moderators centered the start of seventh debate around foreign policy, which exposed decadeslong divisions between the traditionalist and anti-interventionist wings of the Democratic Party.

 

Joe Biden was placed on defense for his 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq, but sought inoculation by noting the most famous opponent of the conflict (Barack Obama) still selected him to be his running mate.

Sanders sought to cast the issue as a question of Biden's judgment and name-checked Republican Sen. Mike Lee to buttress his case against so-called unconstitutional wars. Warren joined Sanders on his call to remove troops from overseas, a commitment Biden wouldn't make, arguing special forces must be left in Afghanistan.

Amy Klobuchar broadened the debate over Iraq to the current day tinderbox of Iran, pinning the blame on President Donald Trump. And seeking a middle ground, Pete Buttigieg leveraged his experience of serving in a combat zone and called for a three-year sunset on any authorizations of military force.

Foreign policy hasn't been a dominant issue in this race and the exchanges that consumed the first 30 minutes of the debate likely won't sway caucusgoers. But Warren and Klobuchar fielded the initial foreign policy questions with far more command and preparedness than Sanders or Biden, possibly helping allay concerns over whether they can be commander in chief.

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