Opinion writer

With Bernie Sanders surging in New Hampshire and Iowa, Democrats now have a very real primary on their hands. This raises questions about whether something is happening among Dem primary voters that poses a genuine threat to Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the nomination.

FILE - In this June 23, 2003 file photo, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean points to the crowd in Burlington, Vt., during his presidential campaign announcement. Dean's fans will be gathering later in June 2013 to mark the 10th anniversary of the launch of his unsuccessful presidential campaign. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File) Howard Dean in Burlington, Vt., in 2003. (Toby Talbot/Associated Press)

It has also led to a dispute over how many debates Dems should have, with Sanders attacking the Democratic National Committee for scheduling only six of them, and seeming to suggest that this was a deliberate effort to rig the process to help frontrunner Clinton.

Howard Dean is very well positioned to shed some light on what’s going on among Democrats, having been both an insurgent presidential candidate in 2004, and a chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005-2009. Dean has endorsed Hillary Clinton, but in an interview with me, he was candid about the challenges she faces in Sanders’ surge.

For instance, Dean told me that the possibility cannot be ruled out that Sanders could pull off an upset and win the nomination, though he said he thinks Clinton is still the heavy favorite.

Dean also told me he thinks that in the end, there will be many more debates than the six the DNC has scheduled. The DNC has instituted an “exclusivity requirement” that is designed to “further manage the process” by requiring the candidates to participate only in the DNC’s six officially-sanctioned debates. Candidates who participate in any non-DNC-sanctioned debates — such as ones organized by other groups — forfeit the right to participate in the remainder of the DNC’s debates.

Dean told me he disagrees with the DNC’s exclusivity requirement, though he defended the DNC’s decision to set the baseline number of debates at six. A transcript of our conversation — lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity — is below:

THE PLUM LINE: The new NBC poll showed Hillary Clinton down by nine to Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, and her lead shrinking in Iowa. What’s really going on here?

HOWARD DEAN: There’s certainly an insurgency. An attractive candidate is basically calling out the Democrats, much the way I did in 2004. Bernie is a real phenomenon, not just a quirk of the polls. On the other hand, Hillary’s a pretty formidable candidate….

I suspect Hillary is going to win this. She’s well qualified, she’s tough, and she’s been through all of this before. At the end of the day voters will choose a president who is basically ready for the job. I think that puts Hillary head and shoulders above everybody else in the race.

PLUM LINE: You say Sanders’ support is a real phenomenon. Can you help us understand what’s driving it?

DEAN: With Bernie, what you see is what you get. That’s very attractive. But at the end of the day, people are willing, if they believe there’s a strong leader in the race, to support that leader. Because they want a president who can win and beat the Republicans, and a president who can watch out for America in a perilous world….

People like Bernie are always attractive, as I was. They speak truth to power. The problem with candidates like that — and like me — is that as you get closer to election time, you’re more careful about how your vote’s going to be used. You’re going to tend to want to see somebody who you think looks presidential as the nominee of your party. That’s one of the things that sank me. I knew that as an insurrectionist, I wasn’t going to get elected by my party to be the nominee. I just had a lot of trouble turning a corner from being an insurrectionist to being somebody who people could see as president.

PLUM LINE: Some analysts have argued — persuasively, I think — that Sanders’ support seems confined demographically to white progressives…

DEAN: You can say that today. But I try not to play this “let’s look at the crystal ball” stuff….I think Hillary’s gonna win. But anything could happen.

PLUM LINE: You’re saying that one can’t dismiss the possibility that Sanders pulls off an upset somehow?

DEAN: No, I wouldn’t dismiss any possibility. The voters end up making up their minds, not those of us who are pundits for a living.

PLUM LINE: There’s been a dispute among the Sanders campaign and the Hillary campaign over the debates. Where are you on this?

DEAN: We were the ones that instituted six debates when I was chairman. The reason we did that was to protect the candidates…

The only thing I would disagree with is that I have heard that there’s a rule that says, if you participate in an unsanctioned debate, then you can’t participate in a sanctioned debate. That I don’t agree with. It’s not right.

What’s going to happen eventually is, you’re going to end up with 15 debates. Because you’re not going to be able to say No to a group in Iowa that matters, like labor, or a group in New Hampshire like Saint Anselm College. You’re not going to be able to say No to those sponsors in a primary and risk alienating New Hampshire and Iowa voters. So eventually I think there will be 15 or 20 debates.

I don’t get upset with the DNC. I think they tried to do the right thing to protect the candidates. Unless they have this rule, in which case I think they should get rid of that rule…it’s impossible to resist in a close primary, a major, important group in a particular early primary state. If they want to have a debate, you have to show up for that no matter what the DNC says….There are going to be more debates, whether they accept them or not.

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Editor’s note: The DNC has, in fact, instituted such a rule.