DES MOINES, IOWA: US Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden clashed on foreign policy and trade in a debate in Iowa on Tuesday, drawing sharp distinctions as they battle for the top spot in an unsettled White House field three weeks before the first vote.
At the last debate before Iowa voters kick off the Democratic nominating race on February 3, the two contenders touted their judgment and records on issues like authorising the Iraq war and strengthening trade deals.
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The debate was the seventh in the race to find a November election challenger to Republican President Donald Trump, and the last before Iowa’s caucuses on February 3, giving the contenders a final high-stakes chance to make their case to voters.
It comes as opinion polls in recent days show an extremely tight race among four candidates - Biden, Sanders, fellow US Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.
Sanders, a longtime antiwar advocate who voted against the 2002 authorization of war in Iraq, criticised Biden for supporting the war and said they heard the same arguments from officials in former President George W Bush’s administration before coming to different conclusions.
“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.”
Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who touts his security credentials, acknowledged the vote “was a big, big mistake” and said that as President Barack Obama’s vice president, he worked to bring the troops home.
“It was a mistake to trust that they weren’t going to go to war,” Biden said of the Bush administration. “It was a mistaken vote, but I think my record overall on everything we have done, I’m prepared to compare it to anybody’s on this stage.”
‘Fundamental difference’ on trade
On trade, Sanders said he and Biden had “a fundamental difference” on the worth of regional free trade agreements like Trump’s new agreement with Mexico and Canada, called the USMCA, which Sanders opposes and Biden backs.
“I don’t know that there’s any trade agreement that the senator would ever think made any sense,” Biden said.
Sanders said the agreements “were written for one reason alone, and that is to increase the profits of large multinational corporations.”
Joining the four top polling candidates in the debate were US Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire activist Tom Steyer.
With surveys showing a virtual tie in Iowa and a largely undecided electorate, all the candidates face mounting pressure to make an impression.
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The debate stage was the least crowded since the debates began in June, with the Democratic National Committee’s toughened polling and fundraising requirements to qualify eliminating other candidates.
The Iowa debate is the first of four to be held in slightly more than a month as the first four states kick off the voting in February. The next debate will be February 7 in New Hampshire, followed by debates on February 19 in Nevada and February 25 in South Carolina.
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