For Democrats, a Debate Over Debates

Hillary Clinton is on board with the DNC's plans, but other candidates aren't.

May 6, 2015, 12:48 PM
PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidates debate during the AFL-CIO Presidential Forum at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill., Aug. 7, 2007.
Democratic presidential candidates debate during the AFL-CIO Presidential Forum at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill., Aug. 7, 2007.
Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

— -- Hillary Clinton may fully support the Democratic Party's plan to hold just six primary debates this year, but not everyone else does.

The Democratic National Committee announced that plan Tuesday morning, and soon after the press release hit reporters' inboxes around 11:50 a.m., the Democratic frontrunner tweeted her support:

Her field of rivals doesn't appear to be as happy with the party's move to limit the number of debates this time around.

Clinton will participate in all six sanctioned debates, her campaign team told ABC News, but there's a wrinkle in the party's plans. In 2004 and 2008, the DNC similarly sanctioned six debates, but thanks to advocacy groups and media outlets organizing their own debates and forums, the actual number of debates ballooned to over 20 in each year.

This election cycle, the DNC has stipulated, candidates will not be eligible to participate in DNC-sanctioned debates if they also participate in other, non-sanctioned ones -- a move designed to restrict the total number.

For any candidate who is not the frontrunner, more debates mean more opportunity to share the stage and compete with the leader of the pack. Hence, this wasn't what some other campaigns and potential candidates' teams wanted.

An aide to a Clinton rival told ABC News that the team was only contacted Tuesday morning about the DNC's release and had not been under the impression that candidates would be barred from participating in more debates. Candidates other than Hillary Clinton had been pushing for more sanctioned debates, in the 10 range, or an earlier start to the debate season, the adviser said. Under the DNC's plan, debates will begin in fall 2015.

"I don't think this is going to hold," the adviser said.

"We'll talk about this. I don't see how we agree to anything about anything until we know where they are or when they are," another adviser to a Clinton rival said. "This is kind of inviting a mess."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, Clinton's only announced competitor for the Democratic nomination, told NBC News on Tuesday night that he hopes to have as many debates as possible.

Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is widely expected to challenge Clinton in 2016, said, "If Governor O'Malley decides to run, we will expect a full, robust, and inclusive set of debates—both nationally and in early primary and caucus states. This has been customary in previous primary seasons. In a year as critical as 2016, exclusivity does no one any favors."

The DNC, for its part, would not say when the plan was first floated with campaigns -- or whether the party consulted with Clinton's team or gave them an advance heads-up that the announcement was coming.

"We made it pretty clear to everyone we spoke to early in this process, to make sure there was a sufficient and manageable number of debates," DNC Communications Director Mo Elliethee told ABC News, declining to say whether the DNC took input from any campaign or to delve into private conversations with any of the candidates' or potential candidates' teams.

"There are always people who wanted more and there are always people who want fewer," Elliethee said. "Our goal is to find the right balance, and obviously there were some people who were going to be unhappy."

The Clinton campaign also declined to comment on its contact with the DNC over the debate plan.

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