Debate begins on presidential debates: Who gets a mike?

A group of third-party candidates, including Ralph Nader, is expected to file suit to gain access to the stage.

On the evening of Oct. 3, 2000, as George W. Bush and Al Gore made last-minute preparations for a nationally televised presidential debate in Boston, security officials stood guard outside the auditorium armed with a booklet of photographs. Their mission: to block access to anyone in the book - even if they had a valid entrance ticket.

Rather than a terrorist watch list, those in the so-called "face book" represented a far different threat to the Democrats and Republicans who had cooperated to organize and stage the debate. The mug shots were of third-party candidates for president, most notably Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. They were on the ballot in 43 and 49 states respectively, but as far as the debate organizers were concerned, they were personae non gratae.

Now, four years later with a new round of presidential debates on the horizon, Mr. Nader, Mr. Buchanan, and three other third-party candidates in 2000 are preparing to file suit in federal court in Washington, challenging what they say is a pattern of manipulation of the debate process in favor of major-party candidates. They argue that Democrats and Republicans run the Commission on Presidential Debates for the benefit of the nation's two major political parties and at the expense of virtually all the country's smaller parties and lesser-known candidates.

That raises a deeper question about what rules can best serve the informational needs of America's prospective voters.

"The issue over control of the debates is not just about candidate inclusion, it is also about making the debates interesting and informative. And the parties sometimes don't want that," says Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md.

Four years ago in Boston, Nader was deliberately blocked from entering the debate auditorium. The two chairmen of the debate commission (a Democrat and a Republican) were worried that he might stand on his chair and protest his exclusion from the debate on live TV. Regardless of the snub, Nader made his presence known a month later in Florida, where he drew enough voters away from Vice President Gore to ensure a Bush victory.

Many political analysts say Nader was a crucial factor in sending Bush to the White House. But viewers of the Boston debate - including those watching on TV in Florida - had no opportunity that night to assess Nader's candidacy.

The third-party challenge to the debate commission suggests that the Gore and Bush campaigns and their parties were unwilling to grant third-party candidates a platform that might allow such candidates to draw votes away.

"To have a blanket prohibition on all third-party candidates to prevent them from campaigning - which seems to be really what is going on - you have to trespass into partisan conduct," says Jason Adkins, a Boston lawyer filing the suit challenging the debate commission.

Mr. Adkins says the "face book" is evidence of partisan favoritism by the debate commission. He alleges that the commission is in reality a political committee working on behalf of Democrats and Republicans and thus must file campaign finance reports or face legal sanctions.

Lawyers at the Federal Election Commission rejected Adkins's allegations last month. "The issue presented by the complaint is not whether [the debate commission's] exclusion decision was a good one, or even whether its fears of disruption [by Nader] were well-founded," the FEC general counsel's report says. "The issue is whether there is sufficient basis to conclude the decision may have been animated by partisanship. There is not." The report says in effect that since the commission acted out of concern about possible disruption rather than for purely political reasons, Nader's exclusion is justified.

But the report does not address why the "face book" required the exclusion of all third-party candidates - regardless of any prior concern about disruption.

The FEC rejection of the allegations entitles the third-party candidates to appeal their case to federal court. It is that appeal that is now being prepared.

The suit is likely to face an uphill battle. Federal judges and appeals courts have repeatedly struck down similar challenges.

Many judges have noted that they are obligated to grant deference to FEC decisions upholding debate commission rules and actions. "As long as the FEC presents a coherent and reasonable explanation ... it must be upheld," US District Judge Richard Roberts wrote in dismissing a 2000 legal challenge filed by Buchanan.

Each round of presidential debates has brought different standards for participation. This year, no candidate with less than 15 percent support in key national polls will be allowed to participate in the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate the commission is organizing. Some analysts suggest that a more objective cutoff would be 5 percent, the same level of support necessary for candidates to receive federal campaign funding.

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