The Democratic National Committee on Friday unveiled new criteria for candidates to qualify for the Feb. 19 presidential nomination debate -- including a big change likely to pave the way for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to make the stage for the first time.
All of the debates in the first eight rounds -- including the upcoming Feb. 7 debate in New Hampshire -- have included both polling and individual donor thresholds for the candidates to reach to qualify for the primetime showdowns.
But starting with the Nevada debate, which will be held in Las Vegas three days before the state's caucuses, the DNC is dropping the individual contributor requirements. That could allow Bloomberg to finally qualify. The multi-billionaire business and media mogul, who declared his candidacy just two months ago, has avoided fundraising and seeking out individual donors as he self-funds his White House bid.
“We are thrilled that voters could soon have the chance to see Mike Bloomberg on the debate stage, hear his vision for the country, and see why he is the strongest candidate to defeat Donald Trump and bring our country together,” Bloomberg’s campaign manager Kevin Skeekey said.
To make the stage in Las Vegas, candidates will need to reach 10 percent support in four national polls or surveys in Nevada and South Carolina, which holds its primary a week after Nevada and is the final of the four early states to hold a contest. Alternatively, the White House hopefuls can qualify by reaching 12 percent in two polls conducted in Nevada or South Carolina. The polls must be released between Jan. 15 and Feb. 18, the day before the Nevada debate.
The showdown in Las Vegas takes place after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary; any candidate who earns at least one delegate from either of those contests to the party’s national presidential nominating convention in July in Milwaukee will also qualify.
The polls the DNC is using to determine the polling criteria are The Associated Press, ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News/YouGov, CNN, Fox News, Monmouth University, National Public Radio, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, NBC News/Marist, The New York Times, Nevada Independent/Mellman Group, Quinnipiac University, USA Today/Suffolk University and Winthrop University. The DNC said it reserves the right to add a Nevada-specific or South Carolina-specific poll to its list in the coming days.
The DNC's change to the debate criteria was quickly criticized by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.
“To now change the rules in the middle of the game to accommodate Mike Bloomberg, who is trying to buy his way into the Democratic nomination, is wrong. That’s the definition of a rigged system,” senior Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver said in a statement.
During his 2016 run for the Democratic nomination, Sanders and supporters heavily criticized the DNC for a lack of debates. After months of protests, Sanders and his rival -- eventual nominee Hillary Clinton -- agreed with the DNC to add more debates later in the primary calendar.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also criticized the move.
"The DNC didn’t change the rules to ensure good, diverse candidates could remain on the debate stage. They shouldn’t change the rules to let a billionaire on. Billionaires shouldn't be allowed to play by different rules—on the debate stage, in our democracy, or in our government," she tweeted.
Another 2020 contender - Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii - also attacked the decision, saying on Twitter that "Billionaire Bloomberg just bought the @DNC."
And tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang's presidential campaign also took aim at the DNC.
“It's a mistake for @TheDemocrats to change the rules for debates in the middle of this race to yield to a billionaire. We need to respect the grassroots movement leading this party forward,” Yang campaign communications director SY Lee wrote on Twitter.
Even fellow billionaire and 2020 rival Tom Steyer - an environmental and progressive advocate - criticized the national party's move.
"Changing the rules now to accommodate Mike Bloomberg and not changing them in the past to ensure a more diverse debate stage is just plain wrong," Steyer said in a statement.
But Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota -- another 2020 Democratic nomination rival -- earlier this week called for Bloomberg to join the stage.
"I'd be fine with him being on the debate stage because I think that instead of just putting your money out there, he's actually got to be on the stage and be able to go back and forth so voters can evaluate him in that way," Klobuchar said Tuesday in an interview on MSNBC.
The DNC had signaled for a month or two that they would possibly revisit the criteria in late January.
"Now that the grassroots support is actually captured in real voting, the criteria will no longer require a donor threshold.
"The donor threshold was appropriate for the opening stages of the race, when candidates were building their organizations and there were no metrics available outside of polling to distinguish those making progress from those who weren’t."
Fox News' Andrew Craft, Kelly Phares, Rob DiRienzo, and Alex Rego contributed to this report.