Story Highlights• Presidential candidates have agreed to debate in New Hampshire in June
• All major GOP candidates, most Democratic candidates agree to debate
• Debates sponsored by local New Hampshire media organizations and CNN
• Democratic candidates looking to party to sanction debates
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Over the past several months, presidential candidates have been visiting New Hampshire to deliver speeches or to meet privately in relatively safe settings in an effort to court the state's influential electorate.
But in June the White House hopefuls will take the stage to answer questions directly from New Hampshire voters and the state's two largest media organizations in the first debates of the 2008 presidential contest held in the Granite State.
Every major Republican candidate and every major Democratic hopeful aside from Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, has accepted an invitation to participate in the debates from WMUR-TV, the New Hampshire Union Leader and CNN, the three news organizations announced Tuesday.
The debates are expected to help shape New Hampshire voters' opinions as they decide whom to back in this wide open presidential race.
Democrats will take the stage at Saint Anselm College on June 3, Republicans on June 5. The debates will be televised statewide on WMUR and nationally on CNN. Extensive coverage will appear in the pages of the Union Leader, UnionLeader.com, CNN, CNN.com, WMUR and WMUR.com, the media companies announced.
The debates were originally scheduled for the first week in April, but the three media partners decided to move them to the first week of June to help accommodate the candidates' schedules.
New Hampshire's most powerful Democratic and Republican lawmakers urged the candidates to participate in the early New Hampshire debates.
"Granite State voters take their role in nominating the next President very seriously and do so with great pride," Gov. John Lynch, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, Rep. Paul Hodes and then-Democratic Party Chair Kathy Sullivan wrote to the Democratic candidates on February 6. "The New Hampshire Presidential Primary provides a level playing field for all who seek the White House and is a time-tested proving ground for candidates and their campaigns. This debate will provide you and your distinguished opponents an important first opportunity to articulate your positions and proposals to the voters of New Hampshire and the country."
Sen. Judd Gregg and Sen. John Sununu issued a similar invitation to the major Republican candidates seeking their party's presidential nomination.
Candidates look to party to sanction debates
In the time since WMUR, the New Hampshire Union Leader and CNN decided to move the debates to June, the Democratic National Committee agreed to put a sanctioning process in place after being asked to do so by several of the candidates. DNC sanctioned debates will be held every month beginning in July and ending in December. The Republican National Committee has not instituted a similar sanctioning process.
"What we've been trying to do is cooperate with the DNC's attempts to corral and focus the debate process," Obama told WMUR in an interview.
Clinton told WMUR that she is looking forward to a DNC sanctioned New Hampshire debate.
"What we have all agreed as candidates is that we would attend DNC sanctioned events and we're all pushing hard for the DNC to sanction the early debate in New Hampshire," she said. "The WMUR debate is an important debate, we all want to be part of it, but we also agreed to support the process that the DNC is trying to bring about."
However, the major Democratic candidates including Clinton and Obama are participating in at least two unsanctioned debates with the first taking place later this week in South Carolina and another in Washington in late June.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, said Clinton and Obama could come under fire from Granite State-Democrats if they decline to participate in the June New Hampshire debate while agreeing to participate in non-sanctioned debates in South Carolina and Washington.
"I think by skipping the debate they will take some criticism for avoiding their opponents and not giving the people of New Hampshire the opportunity to see and compare all of the candidates on the same stage," Rothenberg said.
In comments made earlier this year, DNC Chairman Howard Dean noted the importance of New Hampshire in the presidential nominating process.
"I'm glad you chose New Hampshire," Dean said in a January 16 interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on the Situation Room. "I think New Hampshire has been feeling a little bruised since we added two additional early states to the early times. But this -- I think this shows that New Hampshire remains just as important as it always was."
Republicans will face off for the first time next month in a debate scheduled to take place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
Blitzer is moderating both New Hampshire events with questions coming from WMUR's Scott Spradling and the Union Leader's John DiStaso. WMUR's Jennifer Vaughn will be moderating questions from the audience.
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