The idea of a Trump/Sanders debate that began in a joking exchange on late-night television has become a serious prospect, with Donald Trump telling supporters Thursday night that he would "love to" meet Sanders in California in the coming weeks.
Such an exchange would bypass party tradition and sideline Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton before the decisive California primary on June 7. It would also present a potential ratings bonanza for the hosting television station and few — if any — potential downsides for either Sanders or Trump.
So while Clinton scoffed at the idea — she told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, flatly, "it's not going to happen,"Thursday — at least three major networks reportedly approached both the Sanders and Trump campaigns.
Meanwhile, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver prodded Trump during a CNN interview not to "chicken out." And Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told Reuters there were no formal plans — yet.
[Trump Hits Magic Number]
It all began during a taped interview with Trump on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show Wednesday night. Kimmel later said Sanders had asked him to propose the question.
Sanders' Democratic rival Hillary Clinton had declined an invitation from Sanders, Kimmel mentioned. Would Trump appear in his place?
Trump responded that he would consider it, as long as the proceeds went to charity.
A Trump/Sanders debate "would have such high ratings," he said.
Trump Admits he Sometimes Used Aliases
The Vermont senator immediately responded. "Game on," he tweeted.
Trump wavered on Thursday, with campaign sources telling CBS news the matchup, "wasn't a serious idea
," and "wouldn't be happening." But after news broke later in the day that he had won enough delegates to seal the Republican nomination
, he changed his mind again.
"I'd love to debate Bernie," Trump told reporters in North Dakota, Reuters reported. "I think it would get very high ratings. It would be in a big arena."
Democratic and Republican candidates traditionally do not debate each other until the parties have selected a nominee. But as several commentators pointed out, it could elevate Sanders before the delegate-heavy primary in California and weaken Clinton's campaign when she wants to turn her attention to facing Trump in the general election.
“The better Bernie Sanders looks in a debate with Donald Trump, the better it is in the long run for Donald Trump,” MSNBC's Rachel Maddow
said. “Because that would only elevate Bernie Sanders’ standing in the ongoing Democratic primary — which is still ongoing.”
Sanders, for his part, basked in the spotlight he had illuminated.
In his own Jimmy Kimmel appearance Thursday night, he thanked the host. Kimmel had made it possible for a "very interesting debate, " he said, between "two guys who look at the world very, very differently."
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.