Update: 3:30 EDT
Hillary Clinton's chief campaign strategist has dodged Bernie Sanders' call for a debate before the April 19 primary in New York, saying the former secretary of state's response depends on whether the Vermont senator changes his "tone."
Asked what the risk is to debating Sanders in New York, Benenson replied that there is "no risk" for Clinton but that Sanders "doesn't get to decide" the schedule.
"She's done very well in the debates. The debates have been very good, but Sen. Sanders doesn't get to decide when we debate, particularly when he's running a very negative campaign against us," he said. "Let's see if he goes back to the kind of tone he said he was going to set early on. If he does that, then we'll talk about debates."
"So no chance of a New York debate?" CNN's Kate Bolduan reportedly pressed.
"I didn't say that," Benenson said. "I said we're going to see what kind of tone he sets."
With the momentum in Bernie Sanders' favor following a triple victory in the 'Pacific Primary' over the weekend—beating rival Hillary Clinton by landslide margins in Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii—his campaign thinks it's time to treat voters in upcoming states to something they haven't seen in nearly three weeks: a televised debate.
With the next primary in Wisconsin on April 5th followed by the Wyoming caucus on April 9th, the Sanders campaign is now calling for a televised debate with Clinton in New York sometime prior to that large state's primary on April 19th.
Appearing on Meet The Press with Chuck Todd on Sunday, Sanders said that potential voters in New York and beyond should be allowed to hear from the candidates before the next wave of voting. "I would hope very much that as we go into New York state, Secretary Clinton’s home state, that we will have a debate – New York City or Upstate, wherever – on the important issues facing New York and, in fact, the country," Sanders said.
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Asked by the New York Times on Sunday, a Clinton campaign spokesperson declined to comment about the debate proposal.
Later on Sunday, Sanders' campaign manager Jeff Weaver sent a letter (pdf) to his counterpart in the Clinton campaign, Robby Mook, laying out the argument for why a debate would be in the best interest of voters and reminding Mook that the two campaigns had agreed to "three additional debates – one in March, one in April, one in May – in return for our campaign agreeing to the late scheduled debate in New Hampshire prior to that state’s primary."
The letter continued:
As Alex Garafolo explains at the International Business Times, there's nothing politically surprising about Sanders wanting to put all his chips on the table ahead of the New York contest:
In the April 19 primary there are 247 delegates at stake. While the delegates in the primary are allocated proportionally, a decisive win in the state could either bring Sanders near even with (or even ahead of) Clinton, while a Clinton win would effectively end Sanders chances of winning the nomination. Clinton currently holds double digit leads in the latest polls of likely voters in the state. Sanders hopes a debate in the state could turn those numbers around.
To that end, the Sanders campaign has made no secret that it is gearing up for an aggressive drive for New York votes. "To capitalize on his fresh momentum," the Washington Post reports on Monday, "Sanders plans an aggressive push in New York, modeled after his come-from-behind victory a few weeks ago in Michigan. He intends to barnstorm the state as if he were running for governor. His advisers, spoiling for a brawl, have commissioned polls to show which contrasts with Clinton — from Wall Street to fracking — could do the most damage to her at home."
And as Tad Devine, one of Sanders' top strategists, explained to the Post, "We’ll be the underdog, but being the underdog in New York is not the worst situation in politics. We’re going to make a real run for it."
The last head-to-head debate between Clinton and Sanders was held on March 9th in Miami, Florida.