Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Celebration, Sunday, June 9, 2019, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Word coming about who's in, who's out for Democratic debates

June 13, 2019 - 12:52 pm

The Democratic National Committee is set to announce that as many as 20 presidential candidates have qualified for the first debates later this month.

Perhaps the biggest news coming out Thursday is about those Democrats who aren't in line to make those debates, set for June 26-27 in Miami. That list could include a senator (Michael Bennet of Colorado), the chairman of the National Governors Association (Steve Bullock of Montana) and the mayor of the nation's largest city (Bill de Blasio of New York).

The campaign's opening debates, covering two nights, will offer a prime opportunity for many White House hopefuls to reshape a race defined in recent weeks by former Vice President Joe Biden's domination of national and many early state polls.

Bullock's campaign insists he has reached a party benchmark of a minimum 1 percent in at least three polls by approved organizations. But party officials say Bullock is wrongly counting a Washington Post-ABC poll from February.

Bennet and de Blasio have said in recent days that they expect to qualify.

The three are among the candidates in the crowded field who have struggled to reach a more difficult debate qualifying threshold: at least 65,000 donors spread across 20 states.

An NBC News drawing Friday will divide the large field between the first and second debate night.

Party officials have promised to weight the drawing with the intention of ensuring that top tier and lagging candidates are spread roughly evenly over the two nights.

Those assignments will determine the debate strategies for many campaigns. Candidates will have to decide whether to go after front-runners such as Biden, challenge others in the pack or stand out by remaining above the fray.

Some candidates have criticized the debate qualifying rules that the party chairman, Tom Perez, set this year. The polling and fundraising thresholds will remain the same for the July debates over two nights in Detroit.

"Elections ought to be about people making decisions, not about some rules," Bullock said in Helena, Montana. "So I think there's plenty of time to be out there, and that's what I'm going to continue to do."

The polling and fundraising marks will double for the third and fourth debates in September and October. Candidates will have to meet both marks instead of one or the other. That means 2 percent in the approved polls and a donor list of at least 130,000 unique contributors.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who expects to qualify for the first debate, questioned some of the rules during a campaign stop Thursday, but said candidates have little choice other than to meet them.

"Fighting with the DNC is a little like fighting with the weather," he said. "You can rage against the storm but you will not have great effect. I think the rules are the rules."

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Associated Press writers Brian Slodysko in Washington and Matt Volz in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.