Elizabeth Warren did not come to the debate Tuesday evening acting like her campaign is in the kind of trouble many pundits think it is.

She was certainly sharp, clear, and authoritative with her answers on the full range of topics. She particularly shone in a discussion of child care, for which she invoked the Aunt Bea story from her standard stump speech. On health care, trade, foreign policy—everything that came her way, she addressed with confidence and clarity.
Just as she did at the first debate of this Democratic nomination process, way back in June, and pretty much throughout the campaign.

What she didn’t do Tuesday, in the final televised debate before the February 3 Iowa caucuses, was attempt to knock down any of the other candidates in the race.

She didn’t go after front-runner Joe Biden, who could be almost unbeatable if he wins Iowa. She didn’t go after Bernie Sanders, for whom an Iowa win could produce the two-person Bernie-Biden race he wanted from the start. She didn’t go after Pete Buttigieg, who by winning Iowa could make Warren almost irrelevant heading toward her must-win primary in New Hampshire.

The latest polls suggest that those three, along with Warren, are running neck-and-neck in Iowa, with Amy Klobuchar gaining on the pack. But, the momentum does not seem to be with Warren, and as those above-mentioned scenarios show, anything less than a win for her in Iowa would seem to leave her in very poor position.

Yet she gave pretty much the same performance she has been giving, and took no swings at her competitors.

That’s consistent with her stick-to-the-plan, big-picture campaign philosophy. So, the safe path was not too much of a surprise.

It was compounded, however, by similar calculations from the others on stage.

Biden played it safe, rarely engaging with the others or attempting to cut in on topics unless directly questioned.

Sanders, while making his usual distinctions from the candidates to his right on issues, was not combative and rarely invoked the others by name.

Buttigieg—who seemed to help himself at the last debate by jousting with Warren on campaign fundraising standards—avoided such entanglements this time. He seemed focused on assuring Iowans of his depth and gravitas as they make their final decisions.

And Klobuchar, while clearly trying to define herself against the big-spending liberals in the pack, didn’t often do it through direct attacks. And when she did, most notably in accusing Warren of supporting a health care bill that “would kick 149 million off their health care,” those on the receiving end didn’t bite.

Even Tom Steyer, the oddball-man-out on stage, made few attempts to directly confront the others—and they pretty much ignored him anyway.

The accumulated result of all of that non-confrontation was smooth sailing for everybody on stage to make their points and stress their priorities. They all did, quite well.
That might not be good enough for Warren.

The Scuffle That Wasn’t

On the other hand, Warren might be in perfect position in Iowa, with decent polling plus an impressive ground game. So, maybe she doesn’t need to change the dynamic.

Plus, she might be banking on another advantage, signaled through one of the fights that didn’t happen Tuesday night.

Warren and Sanders sidestepped the chance to scuffle over the latest minor controversy, over whether Sanders told her in late 2018 that he thought a women couldn’t win in 2020. Warren instead got off a sharp line about how only the women on stage—herself and Klobuchar—were undefeated in elections.

The whole episode seemed to draw attention to gender, in a way that reminds me of the way women generally over-performed polls in 2018 Democratic congressional primaries; that is, Democratic voters making up their minds late seemed to say that, all else being equal, I’ll go with the woman.

This Presidential primary, with so much at stake, has seemed to follow a different set of rules. But that line by Warren might have been part of a strategy to put that feeling back into play as voting begins.