- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Amid palpable excitement for the first Republican presidential debate Thursday, Democratic Party officials only shrugged about plans for Hillary Rodham Clinton and their party’s other presidential candidates to debate.

By this time in the 2008 presidential race, in which Democrats weren’t running an incumbent, the party had held six debates and the Democratic candidates would have 20 more chances to meet on a debate stage before a nominee was selected.

The Democratic National Committee reportedly will announce its truncated debate schedule by the end of the week, but the long wait for DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to make the announcement has created the impression that the party is just going through the motions in this primary race.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a long-shot contender for the party’s nomination, on Wednesday described it as “an effort by a few insiders to try to limit the number of debates.”

“It’s all about trying to preordain the outcome, circle the wagons and close off debate,” Mr. O’Malley told the Hill while campaigning in Iowa. “If they could actually accelerate the date of the Iowa caucuses and hold them tomorrow — they’d like to do that. Then there’d be no campaign at all. That’s what they’d really like.”

He said the effort is being orchestrated in part by Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton.

“Of course they are. President and Secretary Clinton are the most colossal, prolific fundraising couple in the history of representative democracies,” he said. “Lots of people have long histories with the Clintons.”

Ms. Wasserman Shultz has given wide berth to Mrs. Clinton, the Democrats’ front-runner, who many insiders view as the party’s only hope for keeping the White House. Ms. Wasserman Shultz limited the number of debates to six and promised strict rules for the debate formats, threatening to punish any candidates or media outlets that don’t adhere to the DNC’s edicts.

The Democrats’ first debate this year isn’t expected until sometime in September or October, robbing Mrs. Clinton’s rivals of an early chance to go toe-to-toe with her and get some national TV exposure.

It’s a long time to cool your heels if you are Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent and avowed socialist who has emerged as the top challenger to Mrs. Clinton and is gaining on her in early-voting states, such as New Hampshire, where a poll this week showed them in a statistical tie.

The wait until fall could seem like an eternity for long-shot candidates begging for national media attention, such as Mr. O'Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.

“The DNC is in a pickle: Either give Sanders and O'Malley a fair shot or admit the fix is in,” said political strategist Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

As the front-runner, Mrs. Clinton has the most to lose in a debate. Her campaign already is showing signs of losing momentum as she is forced to stay on the defensive and fend off questions about her email scandal at the State Department and foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation.

The first primary debate in 2007 was in April, with eight candidates including Mrs. Clinton, Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden.

The DNC sanctioned six debates that year as well, scheduling one a month from July through December, but ultimately only five of those sanctioned debates took place. However, the party did not move to prevent other debates as Ms. Wasserman Shultz did this year.

So far, the only set details are that the four early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina will each host a sanctioned debate. The dates, locations, sponsors and invited candidates remain a mystery.

When Ms. Wasserman Shultz announced in May that the party planned to sanction six debates, she promised that they would be “impactful.”

“We’ve always believed that we would have a competitive primary process and that debates would be an important part of that process,” she said at the time. “Our debate schedule will not only give Democratic voters multiple opportunities to size up the candidates for the nomination side by side, but will give all Americans a chance to see a unified Democratic vision of economic opportunity and progress — no matter who our nominee may be.”

DNC officials refused to answer questions Wednesday about finalizing the debate schedule.

Democratic campaign strategist Brad Bannon defended the DNC’s debate pace.

“Why rush? I don’t see any need for the DNC to rush to schedule,” he said. “A first debate in the fall would have more impact on the independent voters than one now would. No reason that the DNC should rush to please the media.”

He stressed the importance of reaching independent voters who are key to winning the general election.

“All you get in August is the true believers. The indies, not the rank and file, will pick the next president. And I don’t think it’s a conspiracy against Bernie Sanders,” Mr. Bannon said.

Rather than worry about the Democratic debates, Ms. Wasserman Shultz and Mrs. Clinton were more worried about watching the Republican debate in Cleveland.

The DNC sent invitations to dozens of debate watch parties across the country.

“This is an early opportunity for the DNC to engage and mobilize supporters in key states nationwide, looking ahead to the 2016 election,” the DNC said in an email to supporters. “Democrats will ensure that Americans understand the choice between a Democratic presidential candidate who will fight for middle-class and working families, and the 18 Republicans in the race who will all fight for the wealthiest Americans and most powerful Washington special interests.”

The Clinton campaign circulated a memo from pollster Joel Benenson that slammed the Republican candidates for being “out of touch” on every major issue.

He said the focus of the debate on Fox News will be on Donald Trump, with the rest of the candidates trying to differentiate themselves from him. But all the Republican candidates are the same, Mr. Benenson said.

“They’d like to have us believe that they are different from Trump. But in reality, they are all cut from the same cloth, aligning themselves with views and policies that are out of date and out of touch, showing us first hand why the Republican brand is in such bad shape,” he wrote.

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