How to decide who should be in debates

Fifteen percent.

That's the threshold that presidential candidates must cross in public-opinion polls to be included in debates planned for October. The possibility that either of the two strongest third-party candidates - Green Party nominee Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan - will leap over that bar is remote.

But neither man is taking the prospect of a debate blackout lying down.

Mr. Buchanan yesterday announced he is filing a federal lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates over the 15 percent rule. Mr. Nader already has a lawsuit pending in US district court, charging that corporate sponsorship of the debates constitutes an illegal corporate campaign contribution.

For each outsider, inclusion in the debates is "absolutely crucial" to his political viability, says David Gillespie, an expert on third-party candidates at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

The fall debates represent the peak moment of public attention to the candidates' messages and styles, after the summer conventions. One need look no further than Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura for an example of how an independent candidate can use debates as a stepping-stone to election: In September 1998, Mr. Ventura was at 10 percent in the polls. The following month, he participated in five debates with the major-party candidates, and won in November, with 37 percent.

The 12-year-old Commission on Presidential Debates, co-chaired by two former chairmen of the Democratic and Republican Parties, instituted the 15 percent rule this year in an effort to create an objective threshold for ensuring that only viable candidates are included. In previous years, the commission consulted with political experts - namely, professors and reporters - to determine which candidates should be included.

Reform Party candidate Ross Perot was included in 1992, but not in 1996. In '92, Mr. Perot bashed away at President Bush in the debates, and was seen as having a hand in putting Bill Clinton in the White House.

Speaking in Washington this week, Nader surmised that Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the expected Republican nominee, "is probably more amenable, for all the obvious reasons, of having a four-way debate. It shields him from Al Gore."

But there are good reasons for Mr. Bush to want to keep the sharp-tongued alternatives off the stage as well. Buchanan, who quit the Republican Party earlier this year, appears to be on the verge of taking over the Reform Party and gaining access to the $12 million in federal matching funds the party has, owing to Perot's showing in the 1996 election. Once he has the funds to get his message out, he could start chipping into Bush's support.

For now, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political expert at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, sees Nader as having the stronger chance of gaining momentum. And she says both Bush and Vice President Gore want Nader out of the debates: "He would attack them both."

Independent pollster John Zogby says Gore is favored more by keeping third-party candidates out of the debates. His latest head-to-head matchup shows Bush beating Gore 45 to 41 percent in a national poll of likely voters. But in a multiparty race, Gore loses more: Bush is at 43 percent, Gore at 37, Nader 6, and Buchanan 3.

During the primary season, some political observers complained that the Republican debates would have been more interesting if they had featured just the two leading candidates, Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, going head to head. But the public in general favors a more-inclusive setup.

Opinion polls show a majority of the public favors inclusion of third-party candidates in presidential debates, to represent a broader range of views. Some observers have also noted that, under the federal campaign-finance system, a candidate need win only 5 percent of the vote to qualify for federal matching funds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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