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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

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

54 mins ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.