- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Ralph Nader promised yesterday to produce a report this fall detailing faults with the presidential debate system that he hoped would break the Commission on Presidential Debates' control of access.
Mr. Nader, the Green Party candidate in the 2000 election, joined Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party's 2000 nominee, and Ron Crickenberger, the Libertarian Party's political director, to call for replacing the commission with a group more disposed to letting third-party candidates participate.
They argued that the commission protected Democratic and Republican interests to the exclusion of viable third parties.
"The presidential commission is supposed to be nonpartisan, but it's not it is bipartisan. That is an entirely different thing," Mr. Buchanan said.
Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan said the debate is a critical platform for third-party candidates. In 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot used the debates to more than double his showing in opinion polls. Mr. Perot ended with nearly 20 percent of the vote. In addition, they say, debates give third parties a chance to raise issues that Republicans and Democrats ignore.
"Now the two parties decide the number of debates, the format of debates, who's going to ask the questions on the debate, and who's going to be on a debate," Mr. Nader said.
Janet H. Brown, the commission's executive director, responded that the commission, whose duties are set by a Federal Election Commission rule governing who may sponsor debates, isn't geared toward showing off the many choices on the ballot; rather, it is to showcase those who have a chance to win.
"The goal is to make sure that the American public get a chance to see debates in the last eight weeks of the campaign focusing on that small group of candidates from whom the next president will be chosen," she said.
The commission is a not-for-profit outfit formed in 1987. It has sponsored every presidential debate since then two in 1988, three in 1992, two in 1996 and three last year. In 1992, Mr. Perot took part in all three debates, but all of the other debates since 1987 were between the Republican and Democratic candidates.
The system works because the television networks have accepted the commission as the arbiter of the debates. To break the commission's monopoly, Mr. Nader said, he will have to convince the networks the commission doesn't serve the networks' goal of covering the issues.
"Take this up as a free-speech issue," he urged them.
The commission's rules for qualifying for the debates have evolved every year.
For the 2000 debate, candidates had to meet the Constitution's requirements to serve as president, had to be on enough state ballots to be able to win a majority of the Electoral College, and had to poll an average of 15 percent support from five national opinion surveys.
The first two requirements were part of the 1996 process as well, but the third requirement was a simplification of several 1996 rules, designed to make it clear to the public what the bar was for gaining access to debates.
Both Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan, who has left the arena of electoral politics to return to journalism, have challenged the debate system before the Federal Election Commission and in the courts, but the commission has prevailed in every decision to date.
Mr. Nader has a continuing lawsuit against the commission for refusing to let him sit in the audience for one of the 2000 debates. Mr. Nader obtained a student's ticket, but the debate organizers ruled the tickets were nontransferable and refused to seat him.


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