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Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Six candidates squared off at Tuesday night's Democratic debate, which took place in Iowa but began with a global policy discussion on war and America's record in the Middle East.

The big picture: Recent tensions with Iran offered candidates the opportunity to draw sharp contrasts between their stances on foreign intervention. On more personal issues, like the rift between Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the candidates were more subdued, emphasizing the importance of solidarity against President Trump with just three weeks until the Iowa caucuses.

Highlights

1. Foreign policy: Sanders predictably hammered former Vice President Joe Biden for his Iraq War vote, calling it “the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country."

  • Biden admitted the vote was "a mistake" but stressed his role in the Obama administration helping to withdraw troops from the region.
  • Warren returned to her anti-corruption campaign speech by condemning the "revolving door" between the defense industry and the Pentagon, while former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg emphasized his military experience and highlighted how there are currently more troops in Iraq than when Trump took office.
  • The bottom line: Overall the conversation was tame but substantive, with every candidate agreeing that the United States must return to the Iran nuclear deal in order to ease tensions and prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.

2. Warren v. Sanders: Sanders was asked to respond to an explosive claim that he told Warren in 2018 that a woman couldn't win the presidency. Sanders scoffed and flatly denied the claim, noting that Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes than Trump in 2016.

  • Warren countered that she had no desire to spar with Sanders, before adding: “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, Amy and me!"
  • The big picture: The exchange was a microcosm of a broader debate about "electability." But Iowa voters whom Axios spoke with don’t look at gender as a signifier of electability, and are more likely to reach for qualities like truth-telling and candidates' willingness to work across the aisle.

3. Trade: Support for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) marked a rare area of daylight between Sanders and Warren.

  • Warren, Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar back the trade deal as an improvement over NAFTA, billing themselves as pragmatists rather than ideologues. Sanders argues the deal lacks key climate change protections, rebuffing calls to pass the agreement from influential labor leaders like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
  • Between the lines: The trade dispute between Sanders and Warren was relatively polite. Those anticipating a clash between the two progressives left empty-handed.

4. Health care: Medicare for All returned to the debate stage for the first time in 2020 and the final time before the Iowa caucuses, with moderates Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg renewing attacks on their progressive rivals over costs and candor.

  • Buttigieg, whose surge in Iowa has come at the expense of Warren, called Medicare for All expensive and politically impossible. Klobuchar pointed out that the Affordable Care Act is 10 points more popular in the U.S. than Trump.
  • Why it matters: Warren lost momentum earlier in the race after publishing specifics about her health care plan, but remained committed to defending the principle of single-payer on the debate stage. When it comes time for Iowans to vote, she'll likely live or die by that decision.

The bottom line: Billionaire Tom Steyer said in the final 10 minutes, “We’re going to have to beat [Trump] on the economy” — raising the question of why the candidates debated literally everything else for the first hour and 50 minutes.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

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Top general: U.S. losing time to deter China

Stanley McChrystal. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Stanley McChrystal, a top retired general and Biden adviser, tells Axios that "China's military capacity has risen much faster than people appreciate," and the U.S. is running out of time to counterbalance that in Asia and prevent a scenario such as it seizing Taiwan.

Why it matters: McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently briefed the president-elect as part of his cabinet of diplomatic and national security advisers. President-elect Joe Biden is considering which Trump- or Obama-era approaches to keep or discard, and what new strategies to pursue.

Progressives shift focus from Biden's Cabinet to his policy agenda

Joe Biden giving remarks in Wilmington, Del., last month. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Some progressives tell Axios they believe the window for influencing President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet selections has closed, and they’re shifting focus to policy — hoping to shape Biden's agenda even before he’s sworn in.

Why it matters: The left wing of the party often draws attention for its protests, petitions and tweets, but this deliberate move reflects a determination to move beyond some fights they won't win to engage with Biden strategically, and over the long term.

Dave Lawler, author of World
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Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday, Nicolás Maduro will complete his takeover of the last opposition-held body, and much of the world will refuse to recognize the results.

The big picture: The U.S. and dozens of other countries have backed an opposition boycott of the National Assembly elections on the grounds that — given Maduro's tactics (like tying jobs and welfare benefits to voting), track record, and control of the National Electoral Council — they will be neither free nor fair.