“Why does Joe Biden not want to stand toe-to-toe with Sen. Sanders on the debate stage March 15 and have an opportunity to defend his record and articulate his vision for the future?” asked Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ senior adviser.
Biden’s campaign and the DNC said the format for the debate was decided by the party and CNN. The news network declined to comment and referred questions to the DNC.
“We will participate in whatever debate CNN choses to stage: standing, sitting, at podiums, or in a town hall,” Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said. “The problem for the Sanders campaign is not the staging of the debate, but rather, the weakness of Sen. Sanders’ record and ideas.”
The Sanders campaign’s accusations unfold just as his supporters and some Republicans have stepped up their criticisms of the 77-year-old Biden’s physical fitness and mental acuity after lapses on the campaign trail and multiple poor debate performances.
For his part, the 78-year-old Sanders has weathered questions about his health ever since suffering a heart attack late last year, including from some of Biden’s backers.
Weaver said he’s not questioning Biden’s health and Biden’s campaign said the same about Sanders, but sought to portray him as too inflexible.
“We want to have an exchange of ideas next week in Phoenix. We look forward to taking voter questions in a town hall-style setting,” said Bedingfield. “It is odd to see a campaign that says it is based on revolution arguing for the status quo because ‘this is how every other debate has been done.’ Why is Sen. Sanders opposed to a little change?”
The new format would be a town hall-style production featuring audience questions but in a more intimate setting with the candidates in chairs behind desks — similar to the way Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were seated in a few 2008 debates.
“After 10 debates, the DNC worked with its network partners to adapt the March debate to the smaller field of candidates and to give voters more of a voice. This format provides candidates longer response times, and for the first time, will incorporate questions from undecided voters in the audience,” DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said.
During a Friday afternoon call with the DNC, CNN and the two campaigns, Bedingfield said, the Biden campaign “agreed to the format that CNN proposed on a joint call with the campaigns.” After Sanders complained, she said, the Biden “campaign agreed to a modification of that format that CNN proposed, to compromise with both campaigns.”
Weaver said that’s proof that Biden is scared of standing up and debating Sanders.
“Joe Biden does not want to go head-to-head with Bernie Sanders, stand there for two hours, and go back and forth with Bernie Sanders,” Weaver said. “He wants it broken up with audience questions because he knows in that environment, he won’t fare very well.”
On Saturday, Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, also retweeted a reporter who remarked that Biden spoke for only seven minutes at a rally this weekend in St. Louis.
“Bernie has three public events just today in two different states, each speaking engagement extending for close to an hour,” he wrote on Twitter.
The Biden camp accused Sanders’ campaign of reneging on an agreement over the debate format after the Friday afternoon conference call when the new debate format was first broached. Weaver, though, said a “junior staffer” was on the call, made no agreements and that the campaign promptly objected to CNN within an hour.
Biden has complained about the multiple-candidate debate formats and rules in the past, saying it gives too little time to actually debate issues. “They’re not debates, they’re one-minute assertions,” Biden has said repeatedly.