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This week an electronic billboard on Willow Street in New Hampshire’s biggest city is blaring an ominous warning: “Stop Socialism. Vote Trump.”

The message was a blunt taunt to the Democratic presidential candidates who engaged in a hard-nosed debate Tuesday night. But it also was a reminder that Donald J. Trump lost New Hampshire, which next month holds the first presidential primary, to Hillary Rodham Clinton by less than half a percentage point in the 2016 general election and thus the state is in play in what likely will be a very close election this year.

Together those two factors underlined an important threat the Democrats face as they seek to choose a candidate to face Mr. Trump in November: Their campaign to select their nominee may make it more difficult to deny the President a second term.

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And as a result, an important debate behind the debates is unusually raw: is it better for a candidate, and thus the party, to take clear progressive stands – on health care, on free college education, on universal child care, which were all explored in Tuesday’s session – or is it better to support moderate policies so as to appeal to Republicans and unaffiliated Independent voters and defeat Mr. Trump?

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders participate in the Democratic presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14, 2020.

SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters

Even the most progressive Democratic candidates, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are not socialists by European standards, though Mr. Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist.” Indeed, the two more nearly reflect Liberals in Canada than the Labour Party in Great Britain. The only true socialist to have a real impact in American presidential politics was Eugene V. Debs, who ran for the White House five times, once from prison. His greatest showing was in 1912, when he attracted 6 per cent of the vote.

But nonetheless, the two senators did little Tuesday night to insulate themselves from what surely will be a Trump talking point in the fall general election – and laid bare the principal struggle now under way in the Democratic presidential nomination.

In Tuesday’s session in Iowa, which holds its caucuses eight days before the balloting here, Mr. Sanders called for a pullout of all American troops from Iraq, a notion that the leading moderate in the race, former vice-president Joe Biden, dismissed as naive and dangerous.

Mr. Sanders said he would vote against the new trade agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico, a notion that Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, another moderate, brushed aside because ”we need a big trading bloc in North America to take on China.”

Ms. Warren, who like Mr. Sanders supports a plan to provide to all Americans the national health-care system now available to seniors, spoke about the need to create universal health care. Former mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., disagreed, saying that while he was committed to ”making sure there is no such thing as an uninsured American,” he would allow people to keep their current health plan if they wish.

In the smallest debate yet – only six candidates were eligible for this session – an important subtheme of the campaign flared into public view: the struggle between Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren to emerge as the leading candidate of the left.

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In recent days, Ms. Warren has accused the Sanders team of undermining her bid with a whisper campaign characterizing her effort as aimed at an elite audience (which he acknowledged was true) and quoted him saying that a woman couldn’t be elected president (which he denied).

Another moment exemplified their rivalry: Ms. Warren said she supported the trade deal, saying ”modest improvement” had been made in the new NAFTA that would give relief to farmers and manufacturing workers. Mr. Sanders said the Warren view ”would set us back a number of years.”

In the background of the campaign, including Tuesday’s debate in Iowa, is the impeachment of Mr. Trump and the impending Senate trial of the President. The Democrats showed no signs of backing away from their view that the impeachment in the House of Representatives was justified. ”We have a constitutional duty to perform here,” Ms. Warren said. Ms. Klobuchar, who supports calling four witnesses to the Senate trial, said that unless there is a fair trial, the Senate ”may as well give the President a crown and a sceptre.”

One area where there was broad agreement was the question of whether women can win the White House. Ms. Warren said that ”women candidates have outperformed men candidates in competitive races” in the Trump years, while Ms. Klobuchar said that the men she has beaten in earlier races ”have gotten out of politics for good.”

At evening’s end, Mr. Sanders was asked directly if his identity as a democratic socialist would make him an easy target for Mr. Trump. ”Not at all,” he said, and then he argued that his democratic-socialist values, especially for health care, are a potent weapon against a president who is “corrupt, he is a pathological liar, and he is a fraud.”

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