Sanders, Trump stoke speculation over possible debate

Arit John and Kevin Cirilli
Bloomberg News

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump stoked speculation that the two candidates might face-off in an unprecedented debate, though it remained unclear how serious both campaigns were about following through.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, said his aides are talking with staff members from the Sanders campaign, which the Vermont senator's advisers confirmed. But Trump also added conditions on his participation: the television network broadcasting a face-off would have to donate $10 million to a charity, perhaps one dealing with women's health issues.

“I'd love to debate Bernie,'' Trump said at a news conference in Bismarck, North Dakota. "I think it'd get very good ratings. It should be in a big arena.”

"It appears Donald Trump is prepared to debate,” Sanders said at a rally in Ventura Thursday afternoon after the Trump press conference. “I'm very excited about it and I think we're going to have to rent out the biggest stadium you have here in California.”

Hillary Clinton, who is poised to emerge as the presumptive Democratic nominee following a slew of primaries on June 7, had turned down a debate with Sanders in California. She said she's looking forward to debating Trump in the general election campaign and dismissed a possible Trump-Sanders debate as a joke.

"I don't think it's going to happen. I think that's pretty clear," she said Thursday on MSNBC.

A debate between the presumptive nominee of one party and the second-place candidate of the other would be unique. But such an event, or even the chatter about it, would serve the purposes of both campaigns.

Trump would have the opportunity of delivering a sustained attack on Clinton at a time when she's seeking to settle the nomination race and unify the Democratic party. Making the debate conditional on a donation to a woman's health charity gives Trump a chance to deflect Clinton's attacks on him as a misogynist, allegations Trump and his campaign aides vehemently deny.

Sanders would get a low-cost boost for his campaign. With less than two weeks until the California primary, Sanders, who has limited financial reserves, is attempting to make a last stand to amass pledged delegates in one of the country's most expensive advertising markets. Sanders began May with almost $6 million in the bank and has spent about $1.1 million on TV ads in California. In 2008, both Clinton and Barack Obama spent about $6 million on TV ads in the state. Sanders has been relying heavily on free media, including local press, during his extended rally tour of the state.

Sanders started the debate storyline when he asked late night host Jimmy Kimmel to bring the subject up when Trump taped Wednesday's episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” On the show, Trump joked that Sanders would have to pay him. But at his news conference on Thursday Trump suggested he at least would entertain the idea. Sanders is scheduled to appear on Kimmel's show Thursday night.

A Fox News spokeswoman confirmed the network has been trying to host a debate between Trump and Sanders, but declined to comment on Trump's demand that a TV network pay $10 to $15 million to broadcast it. Fox News first proposed the idea of a Sanders versus Trump debate back in February, but Trump backed out, according to the New York Times. A MSNBC spokeswoman declined to comment, and CNN did not respond to a request for comment.

Steve Schale, who led Obama's 2008 campaign in Florida, said that while Sanders will get media attention, the debate won't change the dynamics of his race. "I can't see any actual upside to this other than he would get to dominate a news cycle," Schale, who expressed skepticism that the event would ever take place, said. "In the end it's not gonna change who the nominee is going to be.”

Including superdelegates who've pledged their support, Clinton is 74 delegates away from securing the nomination, which she should easily pick up in the six contests on June 7. Sanders is 844 delegates short.

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said the debate talk is an extension of the media strategy that Trump's pursued throughout the campaign

"They put a nice piece of bait on the end of the hook and damned if they don't have 500 reporters chasing it," said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said. "And it's worked really well for Trump all the way through."