ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Democratic primary has turned into a slugfest recently, just as the candidates prepare to meet in Iowa. It's likely to be an unpredictable debate tonight in Des Moines, less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, which also appear totally unpredictable. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben and Asma Khalid are in Des Moines getting ready to cover tonight's debate.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Let's start with who's going to be on the stage. It's a smaller group than in the past. Danielle, give us the rundown.
KURTZLEBEN: Right. We have six candidates on the stage this time, down from seven last time, the smallest stage yet. We have former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. Those are the six. You notice I said, down from seven last time. The seventh candidate who was on the stage last time and is not this time is entrepreneur Andrew Yang. So this will be the first all-white slate of candidates we have on a debate stage yet here.
Also, in the last week, we had Senator Cory Booker drop out of the race, an African American man, of course. So the field of candidates will be the whitest yet up there, and that is something that has not escaped many Democrats' attention.
SHAPIRO: We mentioned how unpredictable the race seems at this point. Asma, do you expect that tonight's debate will help sort things out?
KHALID: So in the past, I would say debates have not really led to sort of substantive changes in the polls. But if there is a debate to possibly have an impact, I would argue that this might be the one. It is smaller, and it is in Iowa, just a couple of weeks before the caucuses begin.
You know, also, we've begun to see some of the candidates take really public jabs at one another. For one, Sanders has been hitting Biden over his Iraq War vote. We also saw one of Sanders' senior campaign advisers write an op-ed saying that the former vice president had not delivered for African American voters. And so, you know, I could expect to see some of these sharp critiques filter onto the debate stage tonight.
SHAPIRO: Let's talk specifically about this rift between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, which has gotten intense, over an allegation that Sanders told Warren a woman can't win. Sanders denies that. What do you think that'll mean tonight at the debate?
KURTZLEBEN: Well, I - first of all, the thing that it will mean for tonight is that the two candidates will have to address it to each other, with each other in person, on stage, as opposed to via surrogates and via emailed statements and that sort of thing.
Aside from that, I'm curious how much they will get into the substance of what Sanders allegedly said, the substance at the center of this discussion, which is sexism in politics. You know, voters have been saying to us throughout this campaign that they are, at the very least, nervous about whether or not a woman can be elected against Donald Trump in 2020. So to the extent that we get a frank discussion of sexism in politics on that stage, that could be something interesting and something new.
KHALID: I mean, we should also point out that this is a fight - or a rift, we should say, that some progressive organizations don't want to see happening. You know, they have seen Sanders and Warren really lead, they feel, on progressive issues this campaign cycle. The two candidates have largely been on agreement on things. And they worry that any sort of rift between them, especially on the debate stage, might help a candidate like Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg, who they see as a more moderate candidate in the field.
SHAPIRO: There are other candidates, of course. What are you watching for from them?
KURTZLEBEN: Well, one is Pete Buttigieg, who is doing very well in Iowa. He is in that top sort of bunch of four candidates here. And he is doing better here pollingwise than he is nationally. He has a great organization here. And he may be very happy to just watch Sanders and Warren fight it out and Sanders and Biden fight it out and to try to fly under the radar. So that's possible.
One other is Amy Klobuchar, senator from a neighboring state here. She hasn't been getting a whole lot of traction in the polls, but she has been working hard to hit as much of Iowa as possible, to hit every county. And she's gotten a lot of attention in that last debate especially, where she got more time to break through.
KHALID: And lastly, you know, we should mention Tom Steyer. I do think it was surprising to some folks that he qualified for this debate. And in part, he saw an increase in his poll numbers because he's been spending a lot of money on TV ads. So, you know, Ari, you can expect that this is an attack line we're going to see from progressives, you know, questioning whether or not a candidate can essentially, quote-unquote, "buy" their way into this race.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Asma Khalid and Danielle Kurtzleben in Des Moines, Iowa.
KHALID: My pleasure.
KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.