Tonight's debate in Iowa was the last big, scheduled moment before people actually start voting in the Democratic presidential primaries.
The debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register is the smallest stage we've seen so far, featuring only Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer. It's also the whitest: Andrew Yang, who was in the last debate, just missed qualifying for this one.
But the smallness of the stage should be a help for voters. The first voting starts in Iowa in just a few weeks, on Feb. 3. This is the last debate before caucusing begins. It's the last chance for some of these candidates to win voters on a debate stage or change the course of their campaigns. It, really, is actually a pretty big deal.
Here's some of what to watch for.
Sanders vs. Warren
Sanders and Warren are the two leaders in the primary's left lane, and both are at the top of the latest Des Moines Register Iowa poll. They've also historically been extra hesitant to criticize each other, pursuing something of a friendship pact while directing more negative focus elsewhere (Biden for Sanders, Buttigieg for Warren).
That truce looks to be ending pretty dramatically.
Over the weekend, Politico reported that Sanders' campaign had a script for volunteers that suggested telling voters that Warren was "bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party." Sanders distanced himself from the script, telling reporters "no one is going to be attacking Elizabeth," but not before Warren said she was "disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me."
The bigger moment came Monday, when CNN reported that Sanders told Warren in a private meeting in 2018 that he did not believe a woman could win the presidency. Sanders denied making that comment.
Hours later, Warren said in a statement that he had. "Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate," Warren said Monday night. "I thought a woman could win; he disagreed. I have no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry."
Before every single debate we've had so far, someone has pundited that this would be the debate where the gloves would come off and Warren and Sanders would trade their barbs. To this point, it has not happened even a little.
This debate genuinely feels different. And it's impossible to think CNN's moderators will not ask both candidates about an explosive story first published by CNN's reporters.
Can Buttigieg upstage Biden?
Both have led Iowa polls (Buttigieg in November, Biden at the outset of the campaign and again in some new polling), and they're both squarely in the mix in the top four.
But Buttigieg's candidacy, like that of many others, has always appeared to hinge on Biden slipping. Both candidates are pushing a more centrist politics — in the new Des Moines Register poll, majorities of their supporters say it's important to have a candidate who can bring Republicans into their campaigns — and they appeal to similar sets of voters.
Biden has not slipped in Iowa, and at this point it's getting tricky to imagine what exactly would cause a slip, or what one would look like. But after being the focus of attacks in the last debate, Buttigieg has a chance now to be less on the defensive Tuesday. One thing to look out for: how much Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan, and others go in on Biden's vote for the Iraq War in 2002.
Who's the "unity" candidate?
Elizabeth Warren has been making a very explicit pitch since the start of the year: She is the primary's true unity candidate, the one who can bring supporters of all candidates together in a final race against Trump.
Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of a city in a red state, has been making this argument for months. Joe Biden, a self-determined successor of the Obama coalition who has a huge advantage with black voters, has been making this argument for months. Amy Klobuchar, a moderate who has run up big electoral margins in a purple state, has been making this argument for months. Even Bernie Sanders has been making a version of this argument, pointing to his supporters' energy and enthusiasm to win converts.
There's a reason candidates are locking in on this pitch as voting is set to begin: Democratic voters have consistently said all year that the thing they care about most is "electability," and what better way to show you're electable than by proving you're the one that can bring the party together after a long primary with 45 presidential candidates.
Each candidate can pick and choose data to suggest that they're the true unity candidate. But the argument is about feeling as much as anything: Who can voters imagine leading the other candidates onstage, and their supporters, joyfully behind them come summer? Democrats get freaked out by the idea of long-running internal conflict — some might still remember the pro-Clinton PUMA faction against Obama in 2008, most definitely remember the bad feelings between Sanders and Clinton supporters in 2016. Tuesday night gives candidates a chance to convince voters they're best positioned to head that off, before the stage gets even smaller.
Whom does Amy Klobuchar like most?
Klobuchar has exceeded most expectations for her campaign, outlasting flashier candidates like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Beto O'Rourke and qualifying for the last debate before the Iowa caucuses ahead of Andrew Yang. But as of right now, her odds of truly breaking through remain low: the Iowa poll showed her with 6% support among the state's Democrats — which is impressive, but well outside the top four.
That level of support would leave her below the state's threshold for viability on caucus night. This gets a touch confusing — the simplest way of thinking about this is that in Iowa's system, if a candidate is not able to hit a certain level of support in the first vote at a particular caucus, that candidate is eliminated in that caucus and their supporters are able to vote for one of the remaining candidates.
In a super-tight race like this one appears to be, Klobuchar's 6% (and the current 5% from Andrew Yang, who's not debating Tuesday) could make a winner.
So...does Klobuchar give any indication of where her supporters could land in caucuses where she's not viable? The Minnesota senator has spent her campaign arguing that she's the best bet to beat Trump, a pragmatic moderate who has won voters in Republican areas and is an antagonist of some progressive priorities like Medicare for All. She also used much of her speaking time in the last debate to attack the qualifications of one of the other candidates who has tried making similar arguments: Pete Buttigieg.