Democrats to clash Tuesday in final debate before Iowa caucuses

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, speaks with a member of the audience at a campaign stop at the Madison County Fairgrounds, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, in Winterset, Iowa. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Democrats are preparing for what could be their most contentious debate yet and comes amid a sudden rift between two front runners and longtime progressive allies.

The six candidates on the stage Tuesday night are all looking for a way to break out of the crowded pack at the top with just weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses. Since it will be the smallest debate field of this election, the dynamic will offer candidates more opportunities to criticize each other’s proposals as well as tout their own. It will be their final case to a national audience before the first votes of the primaries are cast.

Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg and billionaire Tom Steyer will all appear at the debate. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has appeared in every debate so far, missed the qualification deadline for this debate.

Polls in the past week show a virtual four-way tie in Iowa between Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren at the top of the heap. The Iowa caucuses will be held Monday, Feb. 3. The results of that vote will determine which remaining candidates have momentum into the next contest in New Hampshire.

In addition to tackling differences in policy between the six candidates, the debate comes on the heels of Warren confirming a media report Monday in which Sanders allegedly told her in 2018 he didn't think a woman could beat President Donald Trump. Sanders denied making the comment, calling it "ludicrous."

In a statement, Warren said she met with Sanders to discuss the 2020 election and, “among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” Warren also said she did not want to discuss the meeting further because she and Sanders “have far more in common than our differences on punditry" and that she believed the two would continue to work together to defeat Trump.

Before Warren confirmed the details of the report, which was based on accounts from anonymous sources, Sanders responded saying, "It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win.”

Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver also suggested Sanders' comments to Warren may have been misinterpreted.

"I think there was a discussion about Trump, misogyny, sexism and politics and the difficulty of running in the era of Trump for women, the special challenges that women face in the era of Trump. But those conversations can sometimes get misconstrued," Weaver told CNN.

The rift between the two progressive candidates in the Democratic field potentially opens a door for moderates like Biden and Buttigieg.