LAS VEGAS — The Democratic National Committee has sanctioned six presidential primary debates, giving long-shot candidates chances to challenge front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton before television audiences.
The DNC said Tuesday that each of the four states that hold an early primary or caucus will host a debate: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The location of the other two debates was not announced. The first debate will take place this fall.
DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, said the debate schedule would give Democratic voters "multiple opportunities to size up the candidates for the nomination side-by-side" and allow the party to present its vision "no matter whom our nominee may be."
The DNC plan appears aimed at striking a balance between an interest in holding multiple debates and preventing the debate schedule from becoming unmanageable for the candidates. Republicans have scheduled nine primary debates. The Republican National Committee is holding its first debate in August in Cleveland, where the party will hold its 2016 convention.
For Democrats, it remains unclear how many candidates will be on the stage. Clinton is seen as the leading contender for the nomination and looks to have few primary challengers.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced last week that he would seek the Democratic nomination. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is also expected to run and the field could also include former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Vice President Joe Biden. DNC officials have not determined the process by which they will allow candidates into the debates.
Clinton welcomed the debates, writing on Twitter, "While GOP debates the same failed policies, Democrats will debate how to help families get ahead. Looking forward to a real conversation."
But some Democrats suggested a need for more debates and forums.
Lis Smith, an O'Malley spokeswoman, said if the ex-governor runs, "we will expect a full, robust, and inclusive set of debates — both nationally and in early primary and caucus states. This has been customary in previous primary seasons. In a year as critical as 2016, exclusivity does no one any favors."
The DNC has added an exclusivity requirement, meaning that any candidate or debate sponsor wishing to be a part of the debates must agree to participate exclusively in the party-sanctioned process. Any candidate who violates the agreement would forfeit the right to compete in the remainder of the debates, the DNC said.
Democratic officials said the plan for six sanctioned debates was consistent with the precedent set by the party during the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, the last two times there was a competitive race for the nomination.
The party did not have the exclusivity rule during those years and as a result, candidates appeared in more than a dozen debates. Some campaign officials said the debates and the preparations involved dominated the primary schedule and put a greater emphasis on debate performance.
AP White House correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report. Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KThomasDC