With less than three weeks before Iowa’s caucuses, tensions are rising among the top-tier candidates. The de facto truce between Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has evaporated in recent days, Mr. Sanders has attacked former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., remains the object of scorn from his top rivals.

For the first time in the 2020 campaign, there’s a real chance of a four-way battle royale live on the debate stage.

The strategy comes with significant risks. Iowans tend to dislike it when candidates go negative, and progressives are already blanching at the prospect of a prolonged Sanders-Warren conflict, given that many of them believe either candidate would be preferable to the more moderate Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg.

The conflict makes for good television — and CNN in past debates has sought out tensions between the candidates — but it doesn’t always lead to more affection from voters. The trick for candidates Tuesday night will be navigating attacks and counterpunches without undermining Democratic unity and catering to voters’ all-encompassing desire to defeat President Trump.

Mr. Biden often claims he’s not engaging in “hyperbole” — but as Democratic candidates work to appeal to voters of color, that’s exactly what he did as he highlighted his standing with those constituencies in an interview published Tuesday, hours before a debate for which only white candidates qualified.

“I get more support from black and brown constituents than anybody in this race. That’s where I come from. I come from the African-American community,” Mr. Biden, who is white, told The Sacramento Bee. “That’s my base. We’re the eighth largest black population (as a percentage) in the United States in my state. That’s how I got started.”

Those remarks came in response to a question about the all-white debate stage, a disappointment to many Democratic voters and activists who were energized by the diversity of the field at the outset of the campaign.

“I think there’s some really qualified people, but it’s the way, you know, the way the polls are running, the way things are moving,” Mr. Biden said. “I’m not sure this whole debate setup has made any sense anyway to begin with. But it is what it is. But I tell you what: If I’m elected president, I promise you my administration is going to look like America.”

The debate comes a day after Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, dropped out of the race, leaving just one black person — Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts — in the Democratic contest.

Polls do show Mr. Biden with a commanding lead among African-American voters over all, though the contest for younger black voters, as well as for Latino voters, is far more competitive, and Mr. Sanders in particular has shown strength with those constituencies.

Ms. Warren’s top aides and her new surrogate Julián Castro have been telegraphing a message of unity, promoting Ms. Warren as the candidate who can bridge the party’s progressive and moderate wings.

That’ll be hard if she’s stoking a war with Mr. Sanders.

Ms. Warren is going to try anyway, having already adopted most of Mr. Sanders’s platform without some of his harder edges. She’s sure to be asked about reports in recent days that Sanders volunteers disparaged her election chances in calls to Iowa Democrats and the report, followed by her confirmation, that Mr. Sanders told her a woman could not be elected president.

There’s little evidence that Sanders supporters can be moved away from the Vermont senator, but it is incumbent upon Ms. Warren to demonstrate to moderate and undecided Iowans that she can appeal to all elements of the party and, as she often says in her remarks, win Republican votes for proposals like her wealth tax.

As the House moves to send impeachment charges against Mr. Trump to the Senate for a trial, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren will soon be spending far more time in Washington than in Iowa.

The debate offers one of their best, last chances to make a big, televised impression from Iowa before the caucuses. Can they effectively take advantage of that opening?

Ms. Warren, who has a renowned campaign organization on the ground, and Mr. Sanders, who has a loyal fan base in Iowa, have some more cushioning — but both of them are locked in a tight race among a crowded top-four tier. They’ll both be looking for a defining performance that will stay with undecided voters in Iowa while they are off the trail.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg, the other two leading candidates in Iowa, who are competing with each other and Ms. Klobuchar for more centrist voters, will be free to campaign while their rivals are in Washington, and their supporters are eager to take advantage.

Hours before Tuesday’s debate, Ms. Warren released a plan to cancel student debt by executive action.

She argues that existing laws give the Education Department the authority to cancel federal loans as well as to issue them, and that as a result, she can direct the department to do so without congressional approval.

Essentially, she is proposing a more aggressive way of carrying out the student debt plan she released months ago, which would cancel up to $50,000 in debt for about 95 percent of borrowers.

She said she would instruct her education secretary to begin canceling debt on her first day in office, and “to amend any regulations or policy positions necessary to get there.” She said she had consulted with experts on the legality of her proposal, and attached a letter from lawyers at Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center that bolstered her case.

The proposal “will require clearing a lot of red tape,” Ms. Warren wrote. “But let’s be clear: Our government has cleared far bigger hurdles to meet the needs of big businesses when they came looking for bailouts, tax giveaways and other concessions.”

Between impeachment hearings, football playoffs and the holidays, TV audiences for that other national story line — the Democratic presidential primary — have been dwindling.

Candidates and cable television producers are hoping that tonight’s matchup in Iowa can reverse the trend.

Last month, 6.17 million people watched the Democratic debate on PBS — a 66 percent decline from the 18.1 million Americans who tuned in for the second night of primary debates in June. The December event was easily the smallest live audience for a presidential debate in 2019.

But Tuesday’s event, sponsored by CNN and The Des Moines Register, is shaping up as must-see-TV.

Only six candidates will appear, the fewest this election cycle, which is good news for Democratic voters who have complained about unwieldy debates featuring up to a dozen candidates.

The Democratic Party is promising a two-hour-long debate on Tuesday, including opening statements, a tighter schedule than past debates.

To prepare, an army of CNN producers has spent 10 days transforming Sheslow Auditorium, an intimate opera house on the campus of Drake University, into a futuristic soundstage.

The building’s stained-glass windows will be integrated into the broadcast. Seventeen cameras, and about 5,000 feet of lighting and power cable, were required for the production.

“It’ll be interesting to see if the candidates feel closer to the audience and if that makes them open up a little more,” Mark Preston, CNN’s vice president of political events, told The Register. “Perhaps it will.”

Reporting was contributed by Nick Corasaniti, Michael M. Grynbaum, Stephanie Saul, Matt Stevens and Marc Tracy.

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