By Tim Reid and Michael Martina
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Six Democrats squared off in a televised debate on Tuesday in Iowa, their last chance to make the case for their candidacies to a national audience before the party's presidential nominating process kicks off in the state on Feb. 3.
The seventh debate of the race included the smallest and least-diverse group of candidates to date, as polling has narrowed the field of contenders who qualify and several minority candidates have ended their White House bids.
The pared-down stage gave candidates more time to focus on the top issues of the 2020 contest. Here are some highlights:
CAN A WOMAN WIN?
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders insisted he never told Senator Elizabeth Warren during a private meeting in 2018 that he did not believe a woman could win the presidency in November 2020.
The CNN report of Sanders' comments quickly became a flash point in the Democratic race and upended a peace accord between the two leading progressive candidates. The dispute deepened on Monday when Warren took the unusual step of confirming the report, even as Sanders continued to deny it.
“Why did you say that?” moderator Abby Phillip asked Sanders of the meeting.
“As a matter of fact I didn’t say it, and I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this because this is what Donald Trump, and maybe some of the media, want,” Sanders replied, saying it was “incomprehensible” he would say such a thing.
Warren said she disagreed with Sanders' opinion, before using the dispute to make the case for a woman in the White House.
"Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised, and it’s time for us to attack it head on."
Warren noted the four men on the stage had collectively lost 10 elections, while the two women – herself and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar – had won each election they had been in.
"I have won every race, every place, every time, I have won in the reddest of district, I have won in the suburban areas, in the rural areas," Klobuchar said.
IRAQ WAR AND NORTH KOREA
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders tangled over their votes more than a decade ago on the Iraq war, with each arguing his stance was evidence of what would make him the best commander in chief of U.S. military forces.
Sanders was one of the only members of Congress who voted against the Iraq war in 2002, while Biden, then a senator, voted for it.
"I am able to work with Republicans, I am able to bring people together to try to create a world where we solve conflicts over the negotiating table, not through military efforts," Sanders said.
Biden defended his vote in favor, saying that at the time he believed the administration of former Republican President George W. Bush was trying to act in the best interest of the United States and would avoid war.
"It was a big, big mistake," Biden said of his vote. "And from that point on ... I moved to bring those troops home."
Sanders said Biden should have figured out the Bush administration was not making a truthful case for the conflict.
"I thought they were lying, I did not believe them for a moment," Sanders said. "I did everything I could to prevent that war. Joe saw things differently."
When it came to North Korea, Biden and Sanders seemed to have a moment of agreement, at least enough to share a joke.
Biden said he wouldn't meet with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, saying "absent pre-conditions I would not meet with the supreme leader who said Joe Biden is a rabid dog, he should be beaten to death with a stick."
"Other than that you like him," Sanders interrupted.
Biden laughed. "Other than that I like him, and he got a love letter from Trump right after that," he said.
A 'FUNDAMENTAL DISAGREEMENT' ON TRADE
Biden and Sanders also had a pointed exchange on the issue of trade during a discussion of Trump’s new agreement with Mexico and Canada, called the USMCA, which replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
Sanders opposed NAFTA and does not support the USMCA, which Biden has backed.
“I don’t know that there’s any trade agreement that the senator would ever think made any sense," Biden said in response to Sanders.
“Joe and I have a fundamental disagreement, in case you haven’t noticed," Sanders replied, drawing laughter in the debate arena.
BACK TO WASHINGTON
Warren and Klobuchar put on their juror hats during the debate, saying they weren’t concerned about the impending Senate impeachment trial against Trump keeping them off the campaign trail.
Warren, Klobuchar, and Sanders were going to have to leave Iowa quickly as the House of Representatives was expected to send the charges to the Senate on Wednesday.
"Some things are more important than politics,” Warren said.
Trump, a Republican, has denied any wrongdoing and dismissed his impeachment as a partisan bid to undo his 2016 election win. The Republican-led Senate is ultimately expected to vote to acquit him.
Klobuchar called the trial a "decency check on our government."
"We've asked for only four people as witnesses. And if our Republican colleagues won't allow those witnesses, they may as well give the president a crown and a scepter," Klobuchar said.
(Reporting by Tim Reid and Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker; Writing by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Sonya Hepinstall)