© Randall Hill / Reuters
By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. news channel and a newspaper will host a debate for the Democratic presidential contenders in New Hampshire a few days before the state's primary election, but it remained unclear whether the party will relax its rule banning candidates from non-sanctioned debates.
The news channel MSNBC and the New Hampshire Union Leader will hold the debate on Feb. 4 in New Hampshire, the second state in the nation to vote for parties' presidential nominees following the Iowa caucuses on Monday, the Union Leader said on its website on Tuesday.
But the Democratic National Committee (DNC) raised doubts about whether it would proceed, saying in a statement it had no plans to sanction this debate. It left open the question of whether it would punish any participants by excluding them from the remaining two sanctioned ones.
Spokesmen for Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state who leads most polls, and Martin O'Malley, a former Maryland governor, said their candidates would be happy to take part, at least in theory.
"Hillary Clinton would be happy to participate in a debate in New Hampshire if the other candidates agree, which would allow the DNC to sanction the debate," Jennifer Palmieri, a Clinton spokeswoman, said in a statement.
A spokesman for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont did not respond to a request for comment.
Both Sanders and O'Malley have criticized the DNC for organizing a relatively skimpy debate schedule.
The DNC scheduled only six debates for its 2016 candidates, and, contrary to its practice in previous election years, forbade candidates from taking part in debates not sanctioned by the party. There were 25 Democratic primary debates in 2008 and 15 in 2004, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has dismissed criticisms from within her party that she organized relatively few debates and scheduled them at times when viewership might be lower than average in order to protect former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's position as the long-standing front-runner for the nomination.
Sanders has recently been drawing near or even, overtaking Clinton in some opinion polls as the first voting draws near, beginning with caucuses in Iowa on Feb. 1 and the New Hampshire election on Feb. 9.
"We have no plans to sanction any further debates before the upcoming First in the Nation caucuses and primary," Wasserman Schultz said in a statement, "but will reconvene with our campaigns after those two contests to review our schedule."
(Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Richard Chang)
SAP is the sponsor of this coverage which is independently produced by the staff of Reuters News Agency.
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