For all his billions, Ross Perot couldn't buy a seat at the most important table in this fall's campaign: the presidential debates.
Yesterday's recommendation by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates to exclude Mr. Perot from this crucial forum deals a devastating blow to the Texas tycoon's presidential campaign.
Recent public opinion polls show Perot getting about 5 percent of the vote - down from the impressive 19 percent he won four years ago - and the commission ruled that because Perot did not have a shot at winning the election, he should not be allowed into the debates.
"It's surprising. I'd thought they'd compromise by keeping him in one debate - probably the second," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "After all, he's getting $29 million in public funds. It was a close call."
In announcing the commission's unanimous decision, co-chairman Paul Kirk said, "Participation is not extended to candidates because they might prove interesting or entertaining."
The televised presidential debates - tentatively scheduled for Sept. 25, Oct. 9, and Oct. 16, with a vice-presidential event on Oct. 2 - represent the premier opportunity for candidates to reach a broad swath of voters, many of whom have yet to make firm decisions on whom they'll vote for.
The Dole camp cheered the decision, saying they welcome having a clear shot at President Clinton in a head-to-head debate. Perot pulls his support from a demographic group that is key to Bob Dole's campaign - white males - and so Perot will not have an opportunity to take additional votes away from Mr. Dole. By the same reasoning, the Clinton camp wanted Perot in the mix - though some presidential scholars note that, historically, strong third-party candidates (those pulling at least 5 percent of the vote) hurt the incumbent.
In the end, analysts say participation would likely have had a marginal impact on Perot's numbers. He is much better known by the public now than he was four years ago - and he has high "negatives" in polls. "It is wishful thinking by Dole that he'll win votes by having a clear shot at Clinton," says James Thurber, a political scientist at the American University in Washington.
THE more important fallout from the commission's decision centers on the question of fairness. Why, the public may well ask, should a man who is receiving $29 million in federal tax money - Perot's take, owing to his 1992 vote count - not be allowed a platform in a national presidential debate? Should the fact that Perot seems to have no chance of actually being elected be the overriding criterion in the commission's decision?
A CNN/USA Today poll found that 60 percent of the public felt Perot should be included, while 35 percent said no.
The decision to exclude Perot may cause some voter consternation that he is being "censored," analysts say.
"Fairness is in the eyes of the beholder," says political columnist Stu Rothenberg. "But excluding him excludes a set of issues that ought to be on the table, such as entitlements, trade, and special-interest money."