The Democratic National Committee announced Thursday that 20 candidates have qualified for the party’s first presidential debates later this month.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts were the only major candidates who failed to meet the polling or grassroots fundraising measures required to get a debate spot.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who recently had been on the bubble, both made the cut based on polling measures.
The campaign’s opening debates, set for June 26-27 in Miami, 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.
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 will appear in 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.”