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Opinion The battle between Clinton and Sanders is about to get a lot more intense

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In a sign of just how much fortunes have shifted in the Democratic presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton went on CNN this afternoon and challenged Bernie Sanders to show up at the debate that has been scheduled for Thursday evening on MSNBC. Politico reported this on Clinton’s appearance moments ago:

“I sure hope — we’re in Bernie Sanders’ backyard here in New Hampshire — I sure hope he intends to show up in his neighboring state,” Clinton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday afternoon. “Let the people of New Hampshire see us both on the debate stage.”
Fresh off an official declaration by the Iowa Democratic Party that Clinton won the Iowa caucuses, she called out Sanders for not committing to a debate Thursday.

The Democratic National Committee and MSNBC announced this past weekend a tentative agreement for the Thursday debate, which would begin at 9 p.m. in Durham and be moderated by Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow. The debate would come just days ahead of the state’s first-in-the-nation primary, giving Clinton an additional opportunity to sway voters before next Tuesday.

What’s striking about this is that the Clinton campaign arguably bears some blame for the fact that there haven’t been more debates scheduled. As I reported back in September, the Clinton campaign, in private conversations with the DNC, lobbied for fewer debates than Martin O’Malley’s campaign had requested, leading the DNC to settle on the current schedule as a compromise. Subsequently, both of Clinton’s rivals — Sanders included — accused the DNC of gaming the debate schedule to protect Clinton from exposure to them. That charge was somewhat unfair — the DNC seems to have tried to balance competing desires from the campaigns — but it appears the DNC did partly factor in the Clinton camp’s wishes in setting the limited schedule.

But now that Sanders has pulled off a virtual tie in Iowa, the stakes in the coming New Hampshire battle (where Sanders holds a big lead in polls) are somewhat higher. While the underlying fundamentals probably still mean Clinton is the heavy favorite for the nomination, a Sanders blowout in New Hampshire could produce some more momentum for him, whereas a strong Clinton showing would show that she is stopping the Sanders insurgency in advance of the next set of contests, where the more diverse electorates give her an advantage. And so, the Clinton camp is taking it upon itself to try to jam Sanders on whether he’ll appear at the debate in New Hampshire this Thursday.

The question of whether the Thursday debate will happen has gotten bogged down in a broader set of negotiations over how, or whether, to schedule more debates. After the New Hampshire Union Leader announced that it had agreed to partner with MSNBC to hold the debate this Thursday, the Sanders campaign called on Clinton to agree to three additional debates on top of that one — for a total of four — to be set in March, April, and May, with none on a Friday, Saturday, or holiday weekend, to guarantee more viewers. The question is whether all four debates can be agreed upon as part of a package.

Talks among the two campaigns and the DNC over the details of these four debates are ongoing, but according to a source close to the discussions, there’s still no deal: the hitch is not over whether to have these debates, but over how and when to schedule them.

And so, the fact that Clinton is now pressuring Sanders on national television to attend this debate (all indications are that he will, if and when the details of all four debates are agreed upon) is a remarkable turn of events. Now that O’Malley has dropped out of the race, these four debates would all be head to head affairs, and now that the first voting has shown that the Sanders phenomenon is very real, voter interest may intensify in a big way.

The limited debate schedule was always a mistake, both for Democrats in general (who should want maximum exposure for their candidates, particularly to contrast with the ongoing madness in the GOP contests) and for Clinton in particular (it turns out she’s a good debater who has helped her cause in the debates we’ve already seen). But now you’d think more debates will have to happen. There are only two remaining debates, according to the current schedule, which seems untenable, now that we’ve got a real race of sorts. A competitive, spirited primary will in some ways be a good thing for Democrats, and more debates will, too.