Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders agreed to add four debates to the Democratic primary calendar, in part to gin up excitement about their race and try to counter the eye-popping ratings generated by the GOP’s free-for-all debates.
Three of the four additional debates have taken place, but the fourth, which was supposed to happen in California before the Golden State’s June 7 primary, seemed stuck in limbo: It existed on paper but neither campaign team took steps to make it a reality.
That changed on Wednesday when the Sanders camp announced it had accepted a Fox News invitation after being contacted by the cable news channel earlier this week.
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“We have told the network that we would accept the invitation with the understanding that we can reach mutual agreement on the debate moderators, the format and other details,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign chief said in a statement.
It’s been over a month since Clinton and Sanders last debated, and while Clinton now has the nomination all but secured, the race has turned bruising and highly personal since then.
Sanders and his team, recognizing they likely cannot overcome the former secretary of state’s delegate lead, have increasingly begun taking shots at her and Democratic Party leaders — ratcheting up the rhetoric they have used over the last year that the 2016 nomination process is rigged and designed to be a coronation for Clinton.
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While Sanders has pushed for additional debates in the past in an effort to spread his economic message and go after Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, there are more risks for him this time around. He came across poorly in the last debate, frequently interrupting Clinton and using borderline chauvinistic attacks on her. Sanders, down in latest polls in California, would have no choice but to use every attack available to him to try and stop the Clinton juggernaut.
Such a performance could further alienate party elders, potentially causing his lagging financial resources to dry up even faster. And it could make Democrats question the wisdom of giving Sanders a bigger role at the national convention this July in Philadelphia.
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The Vermont lawmaker professes that the last thing he wants to do split the party so that presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump slips into the White House, but an overly aggressive, acid-tongued debate performance a few weeks before the convention would do little to promote party unity.
There are risks for Clinton, as well. Given her frontrunner status, sharing the stage with Sanders could only elevate his stature. Plus, she who might still give Sanders an ample voice the national convention convenes this July in Philadelphia, and could make a gaffe during another 90-minute back-and-forth, giving fresh lines of attack to Sanders and the GOP.
Still, there are reasons for Clinton to take those risks and agree to another debate.
Since basically sewing up the Republican nomination, Trump has delighted in mocking Clinton’s inability to “put away” Sanders. A strong debate performance could give her the opportunity to do just that. She could also use the debate stage to firmly pivot to a general election against Trump, parrying Sanders’ arguments and playing up how her policies will lead to victory over the real estate mogul in November. Rather than clashing with Sanders, Clinton could use the opportunity to build a bridge for Sanders’ supporters to join her camp as she takes on Trump.
After the last few days, though, including a heated Democratic event where Sanders’ backers nearly plunged the Nevada Democratic convention into violence, Clinton shouldn’t hold her breath for a consensus to form around her.