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What To Look Forward To During Saturday's Democratic Debate

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Democratic candidates for president hold their third and final debate of 2015 tonight. So far, they've lacked the theatrics of the Republican debates. It's been a little like the contrast between a high school assembly in a sequel to "The Godfather" but there might be some sparks tonight over a quick peek at some open data. NPR's Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: We've had the advantage of three or four hours of hindsight here. Was this flare-up between the Sanders campaign and the Democratic National Committee just about the data?

ELVING: On the surface - on the surface it's a fight over a database that the Democratic Party keeps for fundraising and voter contacts. But as you suggest, beneath that you have a buildup of tension and suspicion, long-simmering between the Sanders campaign and the national party, the establishment of the party if you will. The Sanders people believe that the Democratic National Committee favors Hillary Clinton and is covertly working for her nomination.

SIMON: What data are we talking about and what happened overnight?

ELVING: Well, the party maintains a database about prospective voters and much of it is shared among all the party's candidates for all offices. Some of it, however, comes to the party directly from the campaigns themselves, and that part is recorded as proprietary. It's not to be shared with rival campaigns. So last Wednesday, a firewall protecting that data, keeping it apart, came down for about 40 minutes. And at least one Sanders staffer accessed some proprietary data from the Clinton side using multiple accounts and making copies. So the Sanders campaign has since fired their chief data manager, Josh Uretsky, who insists, by the way, there was no intention to steal data, only to expose the faulty firewall.

SIMON: And then the DNC locked the Sanders people out of the database...

ELVING: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Which included their own data.

ELVING: Yeah (laughter) yes and that's when it hit the fan. The Sanders folks filed a lawsuit in federal court last night saying that this lockout would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in prospective fundraising. And in the wee hours of the night, the campaign and the DNC talked and negotiated, and this morning, the DNC says it's restoring the campaign's access to its own data.

SIMON: So they're BFFs now.

ELVING: (Laughter) No, not hardly. There's going to be an independent audit. The Clinton campaign is still in high dudgeon about the breach. They're still talking about whether or not laws might have been broken. And the Sanders people still have their own list of grievances with the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, that are now out in the open and are not going away.

SIMON: Yeah. You don't think any of this will come out in the debate tonight, do you?

ELVING: (Laughter) I believe our formal colleague Martha Raddatz and her current colleagues at ABC are going to ask about it. It's a lively area of disagreement, at the very least. And we haven't seen many of those between these candidates in the Democratic debates so far.

SIMON: Ron, as we say in Chicago, politics ain't beanbag. Was this really so unsporting?

ELVING: You know, the Democrats prefer Hillary Clinton on issues, but they prefer Sanders on the issue of honesty. That's what the polls tell us. They trust him more and he doesn't want that undermined. Plus, the Sanders people still feel there's been favoritism here. They point to the very small number of debates so far. And they point to the scheduling on Saturday nights, including the last Saturday night before Christmas. It's almost as though they're trying to hide the debates, and that's tough on the underdog. Bernie Sanders is still the underdog in this race.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.