Six of the leading Democrats vying to take on Donald Trump in November’s US presidential election will take the stage in Des Moines on Tuesday night for the last televised debate before the Iowa caucuses.
With three weeks to go until the first polling day, former US vice-president Joe Biden, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire investor Tom Steyer will participate in Tuesday’s debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Public opinion polls show four of the candidates — Mr Biden, Ms Warren, Mr Sanders and Mr Buttigieg — in a virtual dead heat in the Hawkeye State. A Des Moines Register/CNN poll published on Friday showed Mr Sanders with the support of 20 per cent of likely caucus-goers, followed by Ms Warren at 17 per cent, Mr Buttigieg at 16 per cent and Mr Biden at 15 per cent.
The Iowa caucuses are the first polling event of the Democratic presidential primary calendar, and winning the contest could provide crucial momentum. The caucus system — in which voters realign if their top-choice candidate does not get more than 15 per cent of the vote in a given precinct — favours candidates with high favourability ratings who can pick up support in later voting rounds.
The leading candidates have sparred on the campaign trail as the February 3 caucus draws near. Given the crisis with Iran, Mr Biden has sought to position himself as the most experienced candidate on foreign policy. But Mr Sanders has gone after Mr Biden’s voting record in the Senate, saying his 2002 vote in favour of the war in Iraq was a critical error in judgment. Mr Sanders has also been accused by Ms Warren of saying a woman could not win the White House.
More than a dozen Democrats are still competing to take on Mr Trump. The six who qualified for Tuesday’s debate did so based on polling and fundraising requirements set out by the Democratic National Committee. Critics say the DNC requirements have prevented a more diverse field of candidates from participating — Tuesday’s panel consists only of white candidates.
New Jersey senator Cory Booker’s decision to suspend his campaign on Monday leaves just one black candidate, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, still in the race. Neither Mr Patrick nor entrepreneur Andrew Yang, an Asian-American, qualified for Tuesday’s debate.
In a surprise, Mr Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, made the cut for the debate last week, after two Fox News polls showed him with 15 per cent of the vote in South Carolina and 12 per cent in Nevada, two early primary voting states. Mr Steyer has never held elected office but has founded two political organisations: NextGen America, a progressive political action committee, and Need to Impeach, which has called for Mr Trump’s impeachment.
Mr Steyer’s critics say he has “bought” name recognition through an aggressive advertising campaign funded largely by his own wealth. The only candidate who has spent more than Mr Steyer is Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who launched his campaign in November and has already spent some $170m on television advertising and hired 1,000 staffers across the US.
Mr Bloomberg’s decision to not accept outside donations disqualifies him from taking part in the Democratic debates, as the DNC requires candidates to have attracted support from a large number of donors.
Tuesday’s debate will also be the last time the candidates share a stage before Mr Trump’s impeachment trial begins in the US Senate.
The looming trial — expected to run six days a week for a month or longer — will complicate the campaign for the four US senators still in the race: Mr Sanders, Ms Warren, Ms Klobuchar and Colorado’s Michael Bennet. Senators, who will effectively act as jurors, are expected to attend every day of the proceedings.
Asked how a trial would affect her presidential bid, Ms Warren has said “some things are more important than politics”.
But last week she conceded a trial would hinder her campaigning, telling Politico: “There are lots of ways to reach out and talk to people. But the best and most important one is the face to face, handshake, a hug and being able to hold up the children so they can take pictures with you, to ask a question to do a pinky promise.”
The trial could also present challenges for Mr Biden. The House impeachment inquiry centred on Mr Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine’s president to publicly announce an investigation into the former US vice-president and his son, Hunter Biden. Mr Trump said last week that he wanted both Bidens to testify in his trial. Joe Biden said he would abide by “any subpoena that was sent to me”.