By Zeke J Miller
Updated: May 5, 2015 3:20 PM ET

The Democratic National Committee is coming under fire for its takeover of the presidential primary debate process.

Just minutes after announcing that it will only sanction six contests and that candidates who appear in any debate outside of those six will be barred from attending a sanctioned debate, Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for likely Democratic contender former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley criticized the small number of debates and the exclusivity requirement.

“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,” she said in a statement to reporters. ”This has been customary in previous primary seasons. In a year as critical as 2016, exclusivity does no one any favors.”

The DNC said the six debate number was the jumping off point in 2004 and 2008 but it was quickly overridden by candidates and news outlets wanting more. In 2008, Democrats faced off more than 20 times before President Obama won the nomination.

“The precedent that was set was six, but there was no mechanism controlling that,” said DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee. “We’ve always said that we’d like to come up with a number and stick with it.”

“Every now and then Republicans have ideas that aren’t so terrible, and this was one of them,” he added of the exclusivity clause.

But an aide to one Democratic 2016 aspirant said they were taken aback by the exclusivity clause. “In the discussions that the DNC had with potential 2016 candidates, they explicitly said there would be no exclusivity clause and it was a shock to see that they included one in their press release today,” the aide said. “It was all an elaborate game where everything was worked out in advance with the Clinton people,” the aide alleged.

Elleithee declined to detail the nature of internal conversations the DNC conducted with candidates and campaigns, including whether the exclusivity clause was a late addition to the parameters.

“I have been involved in debate negotiations for various campaigns for nearly 20 years and they are almost always have some people who want more and some people who want fewer,” Elleithee said.

Appearing on stage with Clinton would be a significant credibility boost to the likely Democratic field, which includes lesser-known figures like O’Malley, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. Clinton aides understandably want to limit her opposition’s potential for a breakout moment on stage, while protecting a candidate who who occasionally struggled during the 2008 primary debates. Minutes after the DNC announced its debate plans, Clinton tweeted her support.

Elleithee added that campaigns were given a heads up about the press release Tuesday morning before it was sent out. But a spokesman for likely presidential aspirant Jim Webb said the former senator’s team had not discussed the debates “internally or externally.”

Additional reporting by Sam Frizell

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