Debate Commission Excludes Perot
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Sept. 17) -- In welcome news for GOP nominee Bob Dole, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has decided to exclude Reform Party candidate Ross Perot from this fall's series of presidential debates.
"Our decision," said Paul Kirk, co-chairman of the commission, "was made on the basis that only President Clinton and Senator Dole have a realistic chance, as set forth in our criteria, to be elected the next president of the United States." Both the commission and its advisory committee voted unanimously to exclude Perot.(295K AIFF or WAV)
The Dole campaign promptly released a statement supporting the ruling. "The inclusion of any other participant in the debate," it read, "would have violated the commission's own standard to include only third-party candidates who have proved they have a 'reasonable' chance to be elected president."
Most expected Perot's participation to hurt Dole, and Clinton campaign manager Peter Knight told The Associated Press, "We regret the decision by the commission. We had assumed all along that Mr. Perot would be in the debates."
Kirk explained that several factors worked against Perot. In addition to the Texan's low poll standings, Kirk cited the commission's judgement that Perot's ability to bounce back in the polls is more limited than it was in 1992. "Participation is not extended to candidates because they might prove interesting or entertaining," he told reporters.
Four years ago, Perot had virtually unlimited funds to spend on his self-financed campaign, Kirk noted, but this time around the Texan has limits on his coffers because he chose to accept federal funding. "Without that wherewithal," said Kirk, "his chances of winning an election in the face of the 1992 history is unrealistic." (300K AIFF or WAV sound)
"We have been very mindful of the fact that 62 percent of the American people would like to see Mr. Perot in the debate," Kirk said. "But I have to distinguish that from what the mission of the commission is. Because when you look at the same numbers, 74 percent of the people say they wouldn't vote for Ross Perot for president." (264K AIFF or WAV sound)
Russ Verney, Chairman of Perot '96, denounced the decision as a "travesty of justice" and said at an afternoon press conference that the Perot campaign was heading to court. "We will file suit in federal court this week," he said. "We will seek a temporary restraining order against the debates' occurring until we can get a full and fair hearing." (160K AIFF or WAV sound)
The theory behind the lawsuit is that the courts could order the Federal Election Commission to enforce its rules that debate sponsors use objective criteria to determine who gets to debate -- rules that Perot's campaign says the commission violated.
The commission had a list of criteria that each candidate had to meet to be invited to the debates, including being eligible under the Constitution and being on the ballot in enough states to win the 270 electoral votes needed for election.
But the key criterion, as the commission has been saying for weeks, is that each invited candidate have a "realistic, i.e., more than theoretical, chance of being elected the next president of the United States," according to Frank Fahrenkopf, the commission's other co-chairman.
While Perot pulled down 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election, he failed to carry any states then, and he has been lagging in the mid-single digits for most of the current campaign.
Kirk and Fahrenkopf said that if circumstances change -- say, if Perot were to improve his poll standings -- the commission would consider including him in later debates.
The decision is a welcome one for the Dole campaign, which wanted the opportunity to debate President Bill Clinton one-on-one. "In 1996, only one of two men will be elected President, Bob Dole or Bill Clinton," said the statement from the Dole campaign.
Clinton's campaign, meanwhile, wanted Perot in, guessing that Perot would spend more time criticizing Dole's tax-cut proposal than he would Clinton's record.
Still up in the air is the exact timing and length of the debates. Clinton would like to have a series of three 90-minute sessions later rather than earlier, while Dole has expressed a preference for four 60-minute sessions beginning very soon.
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