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Inside Politics

Nader upset over likely exclusion from debates

• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
George W. Bush
Federal Election Commission
Ralph Nader
Democratic candidates

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader is crying foul over the ground rules for this fall's presidential debates, which will likely leave him sitting on the sidelines again.

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday that it is planning three presidential debates in late September and October, along with one vice-presidential debate.

All four events will be held in battleground states, where the outcome of the fall election is likely to be decided.

However, only candidates who score at least 15 percent support in an average of five national polls by the time of the first debate will be invited.

Republican incumbent President George W. Bush and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry both qualify.

Nader's current support is at about half the required level, making it likely that he will be excluded, as he was in 1996 and 2000, when he was the Green Party candidate.

"This commission is a political organization designed to support the two major parties and shut out third party and independent candidates," Nader said in a written statement. "We need to reinvigorate our democracy by having real debates -- not joint press conferences designed to limit the voices heard by voters."

In addition to his poll support, Nader could face another hurdle in getting invited. The commission is requiring participants to be qualified for the November ballot in states that have, collectively, at least 270 electoral votes -- the number needed to win the presidency. Nader, running as an Independent, is in the process of trying to qualify in all 50 states from scratch.

The non-profit, independent debate commission was created in 1987 to sponsor presidential debates every four years, including setting the criteria for participation.

In three of the four elections since then, only the Republican and Democratic standard-bearers qualified. In 1992, Independent candidate Ross Perot had enough poll support to be included.

In May, a group of former third-party presidential candidates, including Nader and Pat Buchanan, and three small political parties sued the Federal Elections Commission, demanding that it decertify the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The FEC was sued because it earlier dismissed a similar complaint filed by the excluded candidates, who argued that the commission is a partisan group designed to further the interests of Democrats and Republicans.

Nader said the debate commission "should be stripped of their non-profit status, and television networks who work with them should realize they are working with a political organization, not an educational organization."

Under the schedule released Thursday, the first presidential debate would take place September 30 at the University of Miami in Florida, focusing on domestic issues.

The vice-presidential candidates would be up next, debating October 5 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

The second debate among presidential hopefuls, at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, October 8, would take on a town hall format.

The third and final presidential debate would focus on foreign policy. It would be held October 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

All of the debates would have a single moderator, but their names have not yet been announced.

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