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Key questions in final hours before Democratic debate deadline

With just hours left to qualify for the third Democratic presidential debate in Houston, 11 candidates are at serious risk of failing to make it to the stage.

Ten candidates have already qualified for the debate, set for Sept. 12. But the clock is ticking for those that haven’t yet made the cut, and they’re aware of the risks that being shut out from the debate would likely carry.

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The candidates have until 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday to meet the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) requirements for participating in the debate, though for many it appears all but certain they’ll fall short.

What’s different this time?

Unlike the qualifying rules for the first two debates, which required candidates to amass support from 65,000 unique donors or notch at least 1 percent in three DNC-approved polls, the candidates face a steeper climb to make the stage in Houston.

The qualifying minimums have essentially been doubled: candidates have to collect contributions from 130,000 unique donors and register 2 percent in four approved polls.

The third debate could also be the first of the cycle to take place on a single night. Both the first and second debates spanned two days due to the large number of candidates that made the stage. But if the number of qualified candidates stays at 10, the third debate will be a one-night event.

If that number creeps up to 11 or more, however, the third debate will take place on Sept. 12 and 13.

Who’s already qualified?

So far, 10 candidates have made the cut for the September debate: former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter Trump narrows Biden's lead in Pennsylvania: poll Florida breaks first-day early voting record with 350K ballots cast MORE; Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Tipping point week for Trump, Biden, Congress, voters Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw MORE (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Government watchdog to investigate allegations of Trump interference at CDC, FDA MORE (D-Mass.); Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter As VP Kamala Harris could be a powerful voice for women's retirement security The clock is ticking and Trump is still taking a shellacking MORE (D-Calif.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 Biden town hall questioner worked as speechwriter in Obama administration: report MORE; Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker 'outs' Cruz as vegan; Cruz jokingly decries 'scurrilous attack' Why Latinos should oppose Barrett confirmation Judiciary Committee sets vote on Barrett's nomination for next week MORE (D-N.J.); Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Klobuchar Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Senate Democrats seek to alleviate public concern about some results not being available on election night Washington flooded with Women's March protesters ahead of Barrett confirmation vote MORE (D-Minn.); former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas); former tech executive Andrew YangAndrew YangPelosi spars with CNN's Blitzer over COVID-19 aid: 'You really don't know what you're talking about' The shape of guaranteed income Biden's latest small business outreach is just ... awful MORE and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

Who’s at risk of missing it?

Eleven candidates have yet to meet the DNC’s qualifications: billionaire philanthropist Tom SteyerTom Steyer2020 election already most expensive ever TV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month Inslee calls Biden climate plan 'perfect for the moment' MORE; Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardHarris faces biggest moment in spotlight yet Ocasio-Cortez slams Tulsi Gabbard for amplifying ballot harvesting video Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Netflix over 'Cuties' film MORE (D-Hawaii); Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter's handling of New York Post article raises election night concerns | FCC to move forward with considering order targeting tech's liability shield | YouTube expands polices to tackle QAnon Democrats question Amazon over reported interference of workers' rights to organize Dueling town halls represent high stakes for Trump MORE (D-N.Y.); Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocrats sense momentum for expanding child tax credit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency MORE (D-Colo.); Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockJudge tosses land management plans after ousting Pendley from role Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump combative, Biden earnest during distanced TV duel MORE; Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanNow's the time to make 'Social Emotional Learning' a national priority Mourners gather outside Supreme Court after passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lincoln Project hits Trump for criticizing Goodyear, 'an American company' MORE (D-Ohio); former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Md.); New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioCitigroup executive to run for NYC mayor: report Treasury withheld nearly M from FDNY 9/11 health program New York theaters display banners urging governor to reopen cinemas MORE; bestselling author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson discusses speaking at People's Party Convention Fewer people watched opening night of Democratic convention compared to 2016 Marianne Williamson: Democratic convention 'like binge watching a Marriott commercial' MORE; former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) and Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne MessamWayne Martin MessamKey moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Wayne Messam suspends Democratic presidential campaign 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum MORE.

While most of those candidates are all but certain to fall short when the Wednesday qualifying deadline hits, at least three of them have already met the donor requirement.

Who’s close to qualifying?

Out of all the candidates who haven’t yet made the stage, Steyer is undoubtedly the closest. He’s already surpassed the 130,000-donor threshold and needs to meet the minimum 2 percent support in only one more poll to qualify.

Two other candidates, Gabbard and Williamson, have also met the donor requirements. The polling benchmark may be a bit harder for them to achieve, however. Gabbard needs to score two more qualifying surveys to make the cut, while Williamson is still three polls short.

Gillibrand is the only other candidate with at least one qualifying poll under her belt. She hasn’t yet hit the donor threshold, but she’s close; in an email to supporters on Tuesday, her campaign said she needed fewer than 15,000 unique donors to hit the DNC benchmark.

What’s at stake for the candidates who miss the debate?

In short: opportunity.

The debates are a chance for candidates to pitch themselves to voters nationwide and distinguish themselves from their competitors, all without having to pay for airtime on television.

Some candidates have gotten boosts from the debates in the past. Harris, for example, soared in the polls after she confronted Biden over his past opposition to school busing in the first round of Democratic debates in June. Castro also jolted his campaign in that debate with a well-received performance on immigration.

Several candidates have also reported fundraising swells in the wake of the first two debates. After a standout performance in last month’s debate in Detroit, Booker saw his best day of fundraising of the 2020 cycle, according to his campaign. Delaney’s campaign said the same after the second debate.

Are there any complaints with the qualifying requirements?

A handful of candidates have raised concerns with the DNC’s handling of the primary debates, voicing frustration with everything from the donor requirement to the committee’s list of approved pollsters.

No candidate has been more vocal in his criticisms than Bullock. He vented anger with the DNC in the lead-up to the first debate in June after the committee announced that it would not count a specific Washington Post/ABC News poll that showed him at 1 percent support, because it was based on an open-ended question.

More recently, he has griped that the DNC’s donor requirement essentially allows wealthy or better-funded candidates to purchase unique donors using pricey digital operations, pointing to Steyer as an example. In the less than two months since he launched his campaign, Steyer has spent more than $10 million on digital and television advertisements.

Gabbard has also complained about a lack of “transparency” in the DNC’s process for selecting which pollsters will count toward the qualifying criteria. In an email to reporters last week, her campaign insisted that she had registered 2 percent in 26 national and early state polls, but that the DNC’s rules meant that only two of them would count.

Can candidates who miss the third debate still make the fourth?

Candidates who fail to make the September debate will likely get a few extra weeks to qualify for the fourth debate in October.

The qualifying window for both events opened on June 28, but a DNC memo sent to the campaigns earlier this month said that the deadline to qualify for the fourth debate will be two weeks before it begins.

That means that candidates who haven’t yet made the cut will have some extra time to rack up donations and polling support, while those who have already qualified for the September debate will automatically qualify for the one in October.