Democratic presidential candidates will debate six times, the Democratic National Committee announced Tuesday—giving Hillary Clinton's intraparty competition ample, high-profile opportunities to appear on a stage with the presumed Democratic front-runner.
The debates will begin this fall, the DNC announced; four will take place in the traditional early states: one each in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Locations for the remaining two debates have yet to be decided.
"We've always believed that we would have a competitive primary process and that debates would be an important part of that process," DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.
Until recently, the DNC's debate-planning process was effectively stalled: With no clear sense of what Clinton's opposition would look like, it was difficult for the party to plan a number of debates or a format for those debates. Now, with Sen. Bernie Sanders officially in the race, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley looking likely to launch a bid later this month, and former Sen. Jim Webb potentially in the mix, it's looking like Clinton will have multiple sparring partners on the debate stage with her.
Party officials had been in touch with representatives from each of the potential candidates earlier this year, as well as with sponsoring news organizations, but this is the first concrete step the party has taken toward setting those debates.
Clinton's team has been eager to push back against any air of inevitability surrounding their candidate, stressing repeatedly that the campaign isn't taking anything for granted and is building the kind of early-state operations necessary to compete in a Democratic primary. By agreeing to so many debates—six is more than most political observers would have expected—she's further signaling that she's willing to put in the work during the primary whether she has strong opposition or not.
Hillary Clinton herself gave public support for the plan soon after the DNC's announcement:
While GOP debates the same failed policies, Democrats will debate how to help families get ahead. Looking forward to a real conversation. –H— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) May 5, 2015
But it's also a big opportunity for Clinton's challengers: Debates are high-profile settings that offer these candidates a chance to get some major free media and raise their profiles nationally. As the 2012 Republican primary proved, even a single moment in a debate can help elevate—or doom—a lesser-known candidate. And just sharing the stage with Clinton so many times will help elevate her challengers' statures.
Republicans will hold at least nine primary debates with the potential to add three more: They'll begin this August in Ohio.