- Candidates need at least 5% in national or early state polls to qualify
- The former Maryland governor barely qualifies through Iowa
Los Angeles (CNN)Martin O'Malley is dangerously close to missing the next Democratic presidential debate.
On Friday, NBC News released the criteria for its January 17 debate -- the Democrats' last before the primary voting season kicks off in February -- and the former Maryland governor is hanging on a razor's edge.
To qualify, candidates must reach 5% either nationally or in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina in the five most recent polls recognized by NBC News and published before January 14, 2016, the network announced.
Based on NBC's list of approved polls, O'Malley is at exactly 5% in Iowa, and below 5% nationally and in the other early states. If his numbers drop in Iowa, and if he fails to lift them elsewhere, he will not qualify for the January 17 debate.
The Democratic hopeful has a slight buffer, however: An NBC executive familiar with the criteria said the network expects all three candidates to qualify and will likely round up from a 4.5% if necessary.
But that should hardly comfort O'Malley, who has averaged just 4.3% in the three most recent Iowa polls under NBC News' consideration -- and is only buoyed by two earlier polls where he registered 6%.
At a campaign rally in Iowa on Friday night, O'Malley railed against NBC News executives for treating the Democratic primary like an episode of "The Apprentice," its reality television show formerly hosted by Donald Trump, now the Republican presidential front-runner.
"The news of the day is that some executives at NBC think that the next debate maybe should only have two candidates instead of three," O'Malley said. "They're treating your presidential selection process as if it's an another episode of 'The Apprentice.' Bad enough that we would be limited to four debates and that they would hide them on Saturdays behind football games. But now they tell us that they can't really manage perhaps a three way race. Well I've got news for them. This election is not up to NBC executives, not up to pollsters, its up to you, the people of Iowa."
Both of O'Malley's Democratic challengers called for his inclusion in the debate as well.
"We believe all three candidates should participate in the South Carolina debate, and oppose any criteria that might leave someone excluded," Brian Fallon, the press secretary for Clinton's campaign, tweeted earlier on Friday.
"What's fair is fair," Bernie Sanders wrote. "All three of the Democratic candidates for president should be on the debate stage. Period."
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz also weighed in, "Because of our three great candidates, each #DemDebate has shown our party at its best," she tweeted. "I expect to see all of them in Charleston next week."
The NBC News debate will take place in Charleston, South Carolina on January 17, in partnership with YouTube, and will be hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt will moderate.