Sanders and Warren build big war chests as Biden fundraising lags behind.

Fundraising figures for the third quarter confirm that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have taken a commanding lead in stockpiling funds for the critical and expensive winter campaign season ahead of the first Democratic nomination voting in Iowa in early February 2020.

Figures released after last night’s Democratic debate in Ohio showed that Sanders currently has $33.7m cash on hand, Warren had $25.7m, while the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg has stockpiled $23.3m for his election campaigns.

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The trio have funds at least twice that of former vice-president Joe Biden, who has been spending money faster and raising less over the past three months, latest figures showed. The Biden campaign has just $8.9m cash on hand, raising new questions about the candidate’s durability as a frontrunner.

Biden is not alone in struggling for cash. California Senator Kamala Harris had only $10.5m at the ready. The New Jersey senator Cory Booker holds $4.2m, while the former Obama administration housing secretary Julián Castro had just $672,000 cash on hand, and the Ohio representative Tim Ryan had $158,000.

Warren and Sanders’ commanding war chests will afford them the luxury of spending large amounts on advertising to boost campaigning in early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Their pattern is one of raising money from thousands of small donors – as opposed to Biden’s strategy of tapping larger political supporters at small private fundraising events that take him off the road.

Biden has also been spending heavily – the $17.6m he spent over the past three months was more than the $15.7m he took in, according to fundraising figures submitted to the Federal Election Commission.

Steve Westly, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Democratic donor, said: “The reality is this is quickly boiling down to a two-person race – and that’s between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.”

Sanders’ hefty $21.5m in spending between July and the end of September topped the tables, while Warren’s $18.6m in spending during that period allowed her to support a staff of 500.

Warren came under sustained attack from her Democratic rivals during Tuesday night’s presidential debate, a reflection of the threat her ascendant candidacy poses to the crowded field of hopefuls competing to take on Donald Trump in the 2020 US election.

Twelve Democratic candidates took to the stage in Westerville, Ohio, for the largest presidential primary debate in modern US history, and the first since the launch of an impeachment inquiry into the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden.

The debate opened with a display of unity over the inquiry, with the Democrats unloading on the “criminal in the White House” and “the most corrupt and unpatriotic president we have ever had”.

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Biden, who has been dragged into the impeachment maelstrom by Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that he and his son were involved in wrongdoing in Ukraine, defended his conduct.

“My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong,” Biden said, arguing that Trump’s baseless attacks revealed the president’s fear of running against him in a general election.

Biden and Warren later clashed in tense moments during the fierce debate, the first since she surged into a virtual tie with the former vice-president in many Democratic opinion polls. And Warren found herself the target of barbs from other candidates, mainly moderates, over her leftwing positions on healthcare, taxes and regulating technology giants.

Joe Biden: ‘My son did nothing wrong.’

Joe Biden: ‘My son did nothing wrong.’ Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The debate took place at Otterbein University in Westerville, near Columbus.

Trump won Ohio by 8.5 percentage points in 2016, the widest margin of any “swing” state. The margin of victory in traditional battleground states is typically much closer, as it was in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three midwestern states that delivered Trump the White House.

Younger Democratic candidates, including Buttigieg, 37, and Yang, 44, have argued it is time for new leadership in a Democratic party driven by the diverse grassroots energy of younger activists.

Sanders’ health problems highlighted his age and that of the other top White House contenders – Biden is 76 and Warren is 70, while Trump is 73 – in a race featuring a debate about a generational change in leadership.

Addressing the question of age, Warren vowed to “outwork and out-organize and outlast” Trump or “whoever the Republicans get stuck with” as a candidate for the November 2020 election. Biden said he was running in part because of his long record and experience. With age came wisdom, he said.

The Democratic National Committee again will increase the fundraising and polling criteria to qualify for next month’s debate in Georgia. So far, only eight of the 12 candidates participating in Ohio would qualify, according to a CNN analysis. Nineteen contenders remain in the Democratic race overall.

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