Two of the candidates running uphill battles against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president next year blasted their party’s limited schedule of debates, which benefits the front-runner.
The candidates will participate in six debates: four in the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and two more in Florida and Wisconsin. Only four are likely to take place before the often pivotal Iowa caucuses and possibly the New Hampshire primary as well.
“The schedule they have proposed does not give voters – nationally, and especially in early states – ample opportunity to hear from the Democratic candidates for president,” said Bill Hyers, a senior strategist for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. “If anything, it seems geared toward limiting debate and facilitating a coronation, not promoting a robust debate and primary process.”
Nevada will host the first debate, but the site has not yet been decided.
The Democratic National Committee announced the dates and locations Thursday, hours before the Republicans’ 2016 hopefuls took the stage for their first debate in Cleveland.
O'Malley’s campaign, which held two calls with reporters on the issue and used social media to publicize its protest, said the DNC should remove itself from the process.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement that all five candidates signed off on the schedule, the criteria to participate – at least 1 percent in three national polls – and a new policy that bars candidates from DNC debates if they attend other non-sanctioned debates.
O'Malley’s campaign said it spoke with the DNC several times, but never agreed.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he was “disappointed, but not surprised” by the debate schedule. He did not say whether he signed off on the criteria, but said he wanted to work to expand the number of debates.
He had urged the DNC in a letter to hold a series of debates beginning this summer, including some with Republican candidates in states that do not generally elect Democrats. His campaign has collected signatures of those wanting earlier and more frequent debates.
“At a time when many Americans are demoralized about politics and have given up on the political process, I think it’s imperative that we have as many debates as possible; certainly more than six,” said Sanders, an independent senator running for president under the Democratic banner. “I look forward to working with the DNC to see if we can significantly expand the proposed debate schedule.”
The smaller number of debates is designed to avoid some of the problems that occurred eight years ago when the calendar was viewed as excessive and too demanding. But fewer and later debates benefits Clinton, a former secretary of State, U.S. senator, first lady and one of the most prominent women in the world.
Clinton’s campaign wants to prevent her rivals from getting free attention and taking her on directly during nationally televised events.
“Hillary Clinton is looking forward to joining her fellow Democratic candidates in the upcoming DNC-sanctioned debates,” campaign spokesman Jesse Ferguson said. “We believe these debates will be a great conversation around issues that matter to everyday Americans and the Democratic ideals for moving America forward.”
A handful of liberal groups, including CREDO and MoveOn.org, said Thursday the DNC should add more debates and drop the policy that bars candidates from DNC debates if they participate in similar non-sanctioned events.
But the remaining two Democratic candidates, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and Lincoln Chafee, a former governor and senator from Rhode Island, had no problem with the schedule.
“Governor Chafee is looking forward to the debates,” his spokeswoman Debbie Rich said.
“We'll be there,” Webb spokesman Craig Crawford said.