Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who heads the Democratic National Committee, bowed Wednesday to days of pressure from the party's two presidential candidates and agreed to schedule four additional debates over the next three months.
Two days after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont finished in a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses, Wasserman Schultz said the DNC had sanctioned the first new debate for Thursday at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, to be moderated by Chuck Todd of NBC News and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.
Wasserman Schultz also scheduled a March 6 debate in Flint, Michigan, where city and state officials have faced a crisis over contamination of drinking water.
Two additional debates will be held, one in April and the other in May, on dates and at places to be determined. A person familiar with the discussions said California and Pennsylvania are under consideration as those two debate locations.
“I’m pleased to share exciting news on behalf of our two candidates,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “As with our previous debates, town halls and forums, voters will have several more opportunities to see them share their vision for how to build on seven years of progress and keep America moving forward.”
The new events are in addition to two previously authorized forthcoming debates – Feb. 11 at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and March 9 at Miami Dade College in Florida. There have already been four debates.
Democratic sources portrayed the agreement for more debates as the product of intense but friendly negotiations among the DNC and the Clinton and Sanders campaigns.
But the decision followed months of angry claims by Sanders supporters that Wasserman Schultz was limiting the number of debates because of her close ties to Clinton, which pre-date Wasserman Schultz’s service as co-chair of Clinton’s 2008 failed presidential campaign.
Dick Harpootlian, a prominent criminal defense lawyer in Columbia, South Carolina, and former chair of that key Southern state’s Democratic Party, said the addition of more debates reflects panic among Clinton and Democratic figures who support her in the wake of Sanders’ unexpectedly strong challenge.
“Hillary was against having more debates, now she’s for debates,” Harpootlian told McClatchy. “This is what’s wrong with our party. The minute she’s in trouble, they decide they need more debates. If she had done much better in Iowa, there wouldn’t be more debates.”
Harpootlian, who endorsed then-Sen. Barack Obama in his winning primary battle against Clinton, added: “The party establishment is hardwired for Hillary to be the nominee. Many of these folks on the DNC go back 20 or 30 years with the Clintons. They were not for Barack Obama. They are not for change. And I think it’s a problem. There is a strong populist, anti-establishment sentiment in both parties this year, and I think that’s healthy. It’s good for the country.”
Wasserman Schultz pushed back at assertions that her original debate schedule was designed to benefit Clinton, with some scheduled on weekends when viewership would be low.
“Our debates have set viewership records because of our candidates’ ideas, energy and the strength of their vision,” Wasserman Schultz said.
A source close to the negotiations among the DNC and the two campaigns said they required a delicate balancing of dates and locations to ensure that Clinton and Sanders would not have to break previous appearance commitments and would not be off the campaign trail for long.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose