Clinton and Sanders Camps Clash on Details of New Debates

Updated: Jan 31, 2016 4:46 AM ET | Originally published: Jan 30, 2016

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns have agreed to meet for four new debates over the coming months—in theory.

But major kinks remain as the campaigns work out their disagreements. Sanders is seeking a firm commitment from the Hillary Clinton campaign for debates in March, April, May, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign wants Sanders to attend a debate next week this person said.

“We think it should be an orderly process, and not an ad hoc process,” said Tad Devine, Sanders' campaign strategist. “We have to agree to them not just theoretically.” He added that it would not be acceptable for Clinton to be able to walk into "a state where she's behind and says she wants to have a debate."

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The Sanders campaign does not want to meet in a debate next week in New Hampshire unless it has a firm commitment from the Clinton campaign, which has so far declined to settle on strict dates in March, April and May that have been proposed. A Clinton campaign official did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ongoing discussions.

Sanders wants to ensure he will be on a national stage with Hillary Clinton in the coming months, no matter what the outcome of the primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. A longer debate schedule would mean that his campaign will have a longer timeline to remain in the race against Clinton.

Clinton, meanwhile, who is an adroit debater, is hoping to see Sanders on a debate stage in New Hampshire ahead of the primary there, where the Vermont senator has taken a wide lead. But Clinton wants to avoid a drawn-out primary fight against Sanders.

Clinton campaign has agreed in principle to future debates but has not locked down a commitment. Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said Saturday afternoon that the campaigns should hold one debate in Flint, Michigan, the site of a recent water crisis. “We should use the spotlight of the presidential campaign to keep the focus on Flint, and to lift up the historic underlying issues that Flint and too many other predominantly low-income communities of color across America are struggling with every day,” Podesta said.

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Later on Saturday, the Podesta said in a statement that "there is nothing worse than a debate about debates" and exhorted Sanders' campaign. "Enough of the games," Podesta said. "The Sanders campaign proposal has been met in all respects."

A Sanders aide disputed that characterization. "They have not agreed to our dates," the aide said. "Set the dates and we're ready to go."

The Democratic Party said earlier this week that it would not sanction the debate in New Hampshire next week, though that position may not hold if the campaigns make other arrangements. The Democratic National Committee has previously been open to adding debates after New Hampshire votes. A party official did make clear, however, that the party would not support the New Hampshire Union Leader, which unilaterally announced a debate time and place next Thursday with MSNBC, as a debate sponsor.

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