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story.lead_photo.caption Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, poses for a photo with attendees after speaking at a campaign event, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in Marshalltown, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Democrats are preparing for what could be their most contentious debate yet as the leading candidates gather today in Iowa, looking for a way to break out of the crowded top tier less than three weeks before the state's caucuses kick-start the presidential nomination process.

Some of the fiercest clashes could center on Sens. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, fellow progressives who until now have largely avoided criticizing each other.

However, Warren chastised Sanders during the weekend following a report his campaign instructed volunteers to speak poorly of her to win over undecided voters. The tensions escalated Monday after CNN reported Sanders told Warren in 2018 that he didn't think a woman could win the election, a charge Sanders vigorously denied.

The feuding will likely expand to include nearly every candidate on stage. Sanders has recently stepped up his attacks on former Vice President Joe Biden about his past support of the Iraq War, broad free-trade agreements and entitlement reform, among other issues. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has had several strong debates, will be looking for another opportunity to highlight her candidacy as she remains mired in the middle of the pack in polling. Billionaire Tom Steyer will have to answer criticism he's buying his way to the White House.

And with two surveys showing Pete Buttigieg losing support in Iowa, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, will need a breakout moment to regain some momentum before the Feb. 3 caucuses.

Those shifting dynamics mean today's debate could be unlike any of the others that came before it this cycle. The generally polite disputes over policy items including health care and immigration are poised to be replaced by increasingly bitter and personal knocks. And it will happen as many Democratic voters are just beginning to tune into the race.

"The debates are always important — but this one's probably the most important for these candidates," said Scott Brennan, a former Iowa Democratic Party chair and current committeeman. "We've got at least four people who are bunched right there together at the top. So how do you break out?"

The debate, which is being held on the Des Moines campus of Drake University and will be televised on CNN, marks the first forum with an all-white lineup. Businessman Andrew Yang, an Asian American candidate who appeared in the December debate, failed to hit the polling threshold for today's event. And New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker ended his campaign Monday after he didn't make the debate stage, leaving just one black candidate — former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — in the race.

This will be the first debate since President Donald Trump authorized the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which heightened tensions throughout the Middle East.

Biden advisers see the development as a boon to his candidacy, allowing him to argue he's a steady, experienced alternative to Trump. However, it could easily become a problem if Biden fails to answer what will likely be pointed attacks from Sanders on his support for the Iraq War.

While Biden acknowledged more than a decade ago his vote was a mistake, he's struggled to offer a clear answer for his support, at times misleadingly asserting he opposed the war from the start.

Sanders is eager to take the fight to Biden, as his advisers believe his message on income inequality and major structural change can appeal to the same white working-class voters that make up much of Biden's base.

However, Sanders is less likely to continue the feud that erupted with Warren during the weekend.

Following a report in Politico that the Sanders campaign had instructed some volunteers to characterize Warren as a candidate for wealthy and well-educated voters in conversations with undecided voters, Warren issued a rare critique of her opponent, saying she was "disappointed" he was instructing staffers to "trash" her and emphasizing the need to nominate a unifying candidate to defeat Trump.

That echoed a new argument the Warren campaign unveiled this weekend: She is the candidate who can best unify the different factions of the party, a case new endorser Julin Castro made when introducing the senator on the stump in Iowa.

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