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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally with supporters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S., May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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By Emily Stephenson

BISMARCK, N.D. (Reuters) - Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders on Thursday explored staging an unconventional U.S. presidential debate that would sideline Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and create a television spectacle that could attract huge ratings.

The two men - a billionaire and a democratic socialist - expressed interest in a one-on-one encounter in California even though Republican and Democratic presidential candidates traditionally do not debate each other until the parties have selected their nominees.

"I'd love to debate Bernie," Trump told reporters in North Dakota, after he secured enough delegates to clinch the Republican presidential nomination. "I think it would get very high ratings. It would be in a big arena."

Basking in his newly sealed nomination at a later campaign rally in Billings, Montana, Trump said he expected to put 15 states in play in the general election, compared with three or four for a traditional Republican. He named California, Washington and Michigan among others.

Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in an email there were no formal plans yet for a debate. But Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told CNN there had been "a few discussions" between the campaigns about the details.

"We hope that he will not chicken out," Weaver said. "We hope Donald Trump has the courage to get on stage now that he said he would."

Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, is running far behind Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination for the Nov. 8 presidential election.

But a nationally televised debate with the presumptive Republican nominee would be a big boost to his chances in the California primary on June 7, when Clinton is likely to clinch the nomination.

Trump said a debate with Sanders could raise up to $15 million for charity.

"I'd love to debate Bernie, but they'll have to pay a lot of money for it," he said.

The idea was hatched during an appearance by Trump on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" late on Wednesday. Kimmel said he asked Trump about the debate at the suggestion of Sanders.

"Game on," Sanders tweeted. "I look forward to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7 primary."

Sanders himself appeared on Thursday night on the talk show, where he said Kimmel made it possible for a "very interesting debate" between "two guys who look at the world very, very differently."

Sanders added that the goal would be to have the debate in a stadium in California. He then had a warning for Trump.

If I become the Democratic presidential nomination, he said, "we're going to beat him and beat him bad."

'NOT A SERIOUS DISCUSSION'

Clinton, who backed out of an agreement to debate Sanders before the California vote, said she did not think a Trump-Sanders showdown would happen.

"This doesn’t sound like a serious discussion. I’m looking forward to debating Donald Trump in the general election. I really can’t wait to get on the stage with him," she told CNN in a phone interview.

A Fox News spokeswoman confirmed the network was trying to host a forum with Trump and Sanders. Representatives from other networks did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"If it does come to pass, it would generate enormous ratings," said Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor who has written extensively about presidential debates. "They are from two different planets. You have a real personality contrast. It would dominate media coverage."

Sanders, who has promised to continue his campaign through the Democratic nominating convention in July, has said he will do everything he can to ensure that Trump does not win the White House.

"Smart and bold move by Sanders," Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said. "The Clinton people are furious but Bernie wins points for being so aggressive.”

Clinton has tried to woo Sanders supporters as she turns her attention to the general election. But some Democrats worry his supporters - who are largely young, working-class and disillusioned with the Democratic Party establishment - will turn instead to political neophyte Trump, who has championed a populist agenda.

The debate would give Trump a national forum to criticise Clinton and try to win over Sanders supporters ahead of an expected Trump-Clinton general election contest, Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said.

"I think Sanders should think long and hard about giving Trump a forum," Kofinis said. "It crosses a line, but apparently in this election there is no line."

Dale Ranney, 62, a Trump volunteer who has been to 21 of his rallies, said she would be delighted to see Trump and Sanders debate.

“I think it’s a great idea, any time you can get more information to the people, absolutely," Ranney said. "Having Trump debate a socialist? Absolutely. Go for it."

(Additional reporting by Emily Flitter in New York, Megan Cassella, James Oliphant and Alana Wise in Washington, Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)

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