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Recapping The Democratic Presidential Debate In Iowa


And then there were six. The Democratic field for president continues to narrow. And last night, those remaining who qualified for the debate took the stage to make their case. This was the last debate before voters in Iowa make their picks for the nominee. The candidates talked about a range of issues, including executive power over the military, trade, health care and whether a man or a woman is best suited to beat Donald Trump.

Mark Alexander has helped other Democrats prepare for other debates, like Barack Obama in 2008 and Cory Booker, when he ran for mayor of Newark, and he joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

MARK ALEXANDER: Great. Thanks to be here - really nice to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: You bet. So as an expert, as someone who watches these an awful lot, what was most interesting to you about last night?

ALEXANDER: What's really interesting about last night is that each of the candidates really presented themselves to everyone else. They didn't fight with each other very much. So they're clearly, I think, in the final stages of the primary and caucus season now, where they're about to get voters to vote for them. So they're saying, this is who we are for the people. This is our general unity going forward. We're not going to attack each other so much as just make a last appeal to the voters.

MARTIN: Mmm hmm. Nevertheless, I'm going to ask you about those divisions...


MARTIN: ...Because it's the way that they differentiate themselves. And a lot of that had to do with foreign policy. They were asked about, you know, President Trump's recent decision to kill Iran's top general. Candidates widely condemned that decision. Senator Elizabeth Warren said she wanted combat troops out of the Middle East. And early on, Senator Bernie Sanders brought up former Vice President Joe Biden's vote for the Iraq war. Let's play a clip from CNN.


BERNIE SANDERS: Joe and I listened to what Dick Cheney and George Bush and Rumsfeld had to say. I thought they were lying. I didn't believe them for a moment. I took to the floor. I did everything I could to prevent that war. Joe saw it differently.

MARTIN: How well do you think Biden defended himself?

ALEXANDER: I think Biden did a good job defending himself. I think in that exchange and so much of the beginning, really, you saw each candidate highlight their own experience. When that question was put back to the vice president - former vice president - he spoke about his own experience, about what he did afterwards. He openly spoke about his misgivings, and he went forward from there and I think tried to get people to focus on his experience as vice president for Barack Obama and what he would do going forward. And I think each candidate really spoke to their own strength at that point.

MARTIN: Senators Warren and Sanders had this exchange about gender because this...


MARTIN: ...Has all arisen because the Warren camp alleges that Senator Sanders said a woman couldn't win in a private conversation. Sanders, for his part, denies this outright, but Warren took the opportunity to pivot a little bit. This is what she said.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women.

MARTIN: So this ended - the whole debate ended with this kind of awkward moment at the end. Elizabeth Warren approaches Bernie Sanders. He extends his hand like he's going to shake her hand. She does not, and then they have - we can't hear the audio, but it seems like kind of a tense exchange. Does this tension between Sanders and Warren tell us anything about these two campaigns?

ALEXANDER: Yeah, it says a lot about the two campaigns, Rachel. I thought that was actually a very strong moment for the campaign overall - speaking for the campaign for Elizabeth Warren - where she pivoted on an important issue and made a line that was, I think, memorable, a little funny, a little offbeat but also substantive. I thought also Bernie Sanders handled that pretty well because he made a point about his general support of all the candidates.

And then at the end, it was really quite an interesting point where she said in a sense, I don't want to talk to you. And he said OK, we're not going to talk. And that was all off-microphone, but that was a very curious moment between the two at the very least.

MARTIN: And I do want to ask you about the two folks who were running at the bottom of the polls who were on that stage, Senator Amy Klobuchar, billionaire Tom Steyer. What about their performance?

ALEXANDER: I thought that Senator Klobuchar did a good job. I think the problem is she is down in the polls enough that she's got to climb up. It's hard to really make a lot of progress when you've got four candidates at the top to knock down. So I think she did a good job for herself, presenting herself to the rest of the world. And I think that Tom Steyer, he did a fine job. But I think, frankly, his candidacy is not moving very quickly and depends on the kind of ad time he buys.

MARTIN: All right, Mark Alexander, the dean of the Villanova University School of Law and a former coach for Democrats preparing for debates. Mark, we appreciate your expertise this morning. Thank you.

ALEXANDER: Rachel, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.