The final Democratic presidential debate of 2019 may have taken place in California, but it was all about Iowa.
Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren are banking on a strong performance there on the path to the nomination. They showed that on Thursday, with a series of clashes aimed squarely at voters in the first state to vote in the Democratic nominating process.
Two other leading candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are running national campaigns. They’d both like to win Iowa, but, in part because of Biden’s strength with voters of color and Sanders’ popularity elsewhere, they still have a path to the nomination if they don’t win there.
And it showed: Aside from pro forma clashes with each other over health care and Iraq, the two largely stayed out of the fray. Biden delivered his most confident performance to date, and Sanders (along with Andrew Yang) brought some humor, joking at one point that Klobuchar “took my name in vain. She hurt my feelings. I’m crushed. Can I respond?”
Here are eight takeaways from the sixth Democratic debate:
The ‘wine cave’ moment
Buttigieg faced the kind of sustained criticism he’d largely avoided during his rise to the top of the polls in Iowa.
Warren and the South Bend, Indiana, mayor have been circling each other for weeks, but what played out on Thursday night showed how the two candidates – both of whom have strong operations in Iowa – see their paths to the Democratic nomination as running through the other.
Their most ferocious clash yet started with the senator from Massachusetts, who does not hold private fundraisers and relies on online donors, implicitly criticizing her rivals for holding big-dollar fundraisers and allowing wealthy donors to “drown out the voices of everyone else.”
It was clear she was needling Buttigieg, and he responded: “This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump, and we shouldn’t do it with one hand tied behind our back.”
Warren quickly highlighted a recent Napa Valley fundraiser Buttigieg held in a “wine cave,” where the mayor talked to donors under a chandelier with 1,500 Swarovski crystals.
“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren said.
Buttigieg responded by pointing out that Warren had held high-dollar fundraisers as a Senate candidate last year, and that her decision to no longer do so is a new one.
“You know, according to Forbes magazine, I’m literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire,” Buttigieg said. “So this is important. This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.”
The exchange kicked off a night where Buttigieg took significant incoming from his fellow Democrats, but also proved that he is able to dish it out even if his time on the national scene pales in comparison with that of his rivals.
Klobuchar attacks Buttigieg’s experience
In the other memorably personal exchange of the night, Klobuchar unloaded on Buttigieg for a comment he’d made during the November debate, when he had needled his rivals for having “more than 100 years of Washington experience.”
The senator from Minnesota looked at Buttigieg and told him he should “respect our experience” – and then began highlighting the resumes of other candidates.
She pointed to Warren’s role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Biden pushing his cancer moonshot, Sanders striking deals for veterans’ care and her own role in negotiating farm bills.
And then she laid a trap for Buttigieg.
“The point is, we should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show that they’ve gathered the support that you talk about of moderate Republicans and independents,” she said. “I think a track record of getting things done matters.
Buttigieg fired back: “If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80% of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”
But South Bend is an overwhelmingly Democratic city and there was never real question that Buttigieg would coast to reelection.
Often omitted from Buttigieg’s political resume, though, is his first run for office, a failed bid for Indiana state treasurer in 2010. Klobuchar gleefully highlighted it.
“If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing. You tried and you lost by 20 points,” she said.
She was slightly off. He’d lost by 25 percentage points.