By Jonathan Easley - 01/24/16 06:00 AM EST
A Democratic presidential forum scheduled at the 11th hour will give Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton camp raffling 'Hamilton' with Hillary Sunday shows preview: Next steps after Trump upheaval Bernie fights for relevance MORE one last chance to make her case to the Iowa voters as some polls show rival Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows preview: Next steps after Trump upheaval Bernie fights for relevance Sanders shares star power with NY House hopeful MORE overtaking her in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
CNN and the Iowa Democratic Party announced this week that they’d partner on a candidate forum that will take place Monday night – less than one week before the Iowa caucuses – giving all of the candidates a high-profile setting to make their final pitch to Hawkeye State voters.
But a source with knowledge of the situation said the Clinton campaign was the only hold-out for the forum and didn’t come around to the idea until last week, finally giving the media outlet and the state party the green-light to move ahead.
The Clinton campaign did not return a request for comment.
Her late agreement to attend the forum comes as political watchers increasingly believe that Sanders could win the caucuses in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire – the first two states to vote.
“If there was any calculation that she shouldn’t be as visible as possible, I’m sure they’ve reassessed and are trying to get her out in front of voters because she’s really shined at these debates and forums,” said Mo Elleithee, the former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
It’s an ironic turn of events for Clinton, who was criticized early in the cycle for hiding from the press.
Democrats say the former secretary of State now needs the spotlight she once shunned if she’s to blunt her rival’s momentum, and agree that it’s a smart move to give Clinton another chance to sell herself to voters in Iowa with polls showing a tight race heading into the home stretch.
“It’s clear that she’s benefitted from debate exposure – she keeps getting bumps and after every single one we see people going back to her,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “I think it’s also clear that her people regret not doing more of these.”
Many fault the Democratic National Committee and chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz for the scarcity of debates.
Wasserman Schultz has been accused of limiting the number of debates and hiding them on weekends or near holidays to protect Clinton from scrutiny and to “facilitate a coronation,” as Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley has alleged.
But Clinton has impressed Democrats far more on the debate stage than she has on the campaign trail, raising questions among her supporters about why anyone would think she needs to be protected.
“Debbie Wasserman Schultz has completely mismanaged this and it’s a complete abomination,” said John Morgan, a Clinton donor. “Hillary is at her best when they get her out there debating, but our debates have been totally anonymous.”
Morgan said Wasserman Schultz “has done more to help Bernie Sanders than any other Democrat in America.”
“They played right into Bernie’s hands,” he said. “They’re saying Wasserman Schultz is a surrogate for Hillary and trying to hide her and that’s what it looks like.”
The DNC chairwoman strongly denies this.
She says the DNC cut back on the number of debates to avoid a repeat of the burdensome 2008 schedule and because Democrats don’t need as many debates as Republicans because they have far fewer candidates running for president.
The DNC has also argued that the debates have been on the weekends because they’ve largely run on network television, which has the capacity to reach more viewers but lacks the programming flexibility of the cable outlets.
At the DNC’s executive committee meeting on Friday, Wasserman Schultz touted the viewership for the four debates held so far and said the most recent one, which took place last Sunday night in South Carolina, drew more viewers than any of the Republican debates from 2008 and 2012 — the “pre-Trump” era.
“It was the third-most watched Democratic primary debate of all time, with 10.2 million viewers on NBC, and it was seen by 12.5 million people over all,” she declared. “The debate audience was larger than the debate audience for every single Republican primary debate in 2008 and 2012, in the pre-Trump numbers.”
The DNC has also said it has encouraged the candidates to participate in outside forums, like the late-scheduled event that will take place Monday night.
Still, forums differ from the debates in that the candidates are not allowed to appear on-stage together. It deprives the event of a face-to-face showdown that has greater potential for a game-changing confrontation.
“I guess it’s always possible that a forum could change something but at this point it seems highly unlikely,” Trippi said. “Both campaigns have more than enough support in Iowa to deliver a victory, so the question really is, who has the machinery to turn those supporters out.”
The next Democratic presidential debate will take place on Feb. 11 - after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary — at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. The DNC would punish candidates for taking part in unsanctioned debates by barring them from participating in future debates.
Still, Monday's prime-time broadcast days before in a contest headed for a photo finish at least carries the possibility of tipping the scales one way or the other.
“This race is close,” Elleithee said. “Any high-profile format like this that’s this close to Election Day will have high stakes.”