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Debate Panel Advises Against Including Perot

September 18, 1996|BILL STALL and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan commission dealt a potentially devastating blow to Ross Perot's candidacy for president Wednesday, declaring he has no realistic chance of winning the White House and therefore should not participate in the 1996 presidential debates.

Officials of Perot's Reform Party denounced the declaration by the Commission on Presidential Debates as a "travesty" and said they will file suit in federal court seeking to have the Texas billionaire businessman included in the proposed sessions between President Clinton and GOP nominee Bob Dole.

But legal experts said there is little prospect of success in such a suit, and Perot's prospects now seem to rest on the continuing negotiations between representatives of Clinton, who wants Perot in the debates, and Dole, who does not. The two sides met for several hours Tuesday and plan to continue their talks today.

The unanimous recommendation by the 10-member debate commission came at an already difficult time for Perot. He has had little success in replicating the broad support he garnered four years ago and has been struggling to lift his campaign from the single digits in the public opinion polls. He has also been complaining of difficulty in buying network television time to air his trademark half-hour infomercials during prime viewing hours.

The bipartisan commission's recommendation is not binding, but a senior Clinton administration official said that while the Clinton campaign would still like Perot to participate, it would be difficult to go against the commission's proposal.

Dole hailed the commission's declaration, saying, as he arrived in Arizona for a campaign appearance, that the debates "should be one-on-one with Bill Clinton. We're the only two who have a chance of winning."

Clinton, campaigning in Michigan, said that he "enjoyed having [Perot] in there in '92. I thought he made a valuable contribution."

"I'm not afraid of any debate," he added.

Perot himself declined comment but was expected to speak on the issue during an appearance at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco today.

Perot's running mate, Pat Choate, told a press conference in Washington that the commission's recommendation is a "fraud on the voters" and "demonstrates what's wrong with Washington today. The corrupt process must be ended."

Republican strategists believe that because their candidate is trailing in the polls, he badly needs one-on-one confrontations with Clinton in the hope that something might happen to shake up the race. Clinton aides believe that too, and therefore have been in favor of inviting Perot.

As the Clinton and Dole campaigns continue to haggle over debate details, sources familiar with the negotiations said Clinton's aides pushed for three debates: two presidential and one vice presidential, each for two hours. The presidential debates would be on Sundays, Oct. 6 and Oct. 13. The vice presidential debate would be on Wednesday, Oct. 9.

Clinton proposed having Perot in the first debate with a moderator, and only Clinton and Dole in the second debate, in a town hall setting.

Dole's team argued for four one-hour Clinton-Dole debates and two debates between Dole's running mate, Jack Kemp, and Vice President Al Gore.

As for Perot, the debates were critical to his success in 1992, when he collected nearly 19% of the popular vote. Perot participated in each of the three 90-minute events, often chiding the other candidates for avoiding the big issues, such as the budget and trade deficits.

Before the debates four years ago, Perot's support in the polls hovered around 9%. Afterward, he jumped up to the 19% level, at which he ended the campaign.

But in the end, Perot carried no states in 1992, and the debate commission, accepting a recommendation from a panel of presidential scholars headed by professor Richard Neustadt of Harvard, said it saw no prospect he would do so this year either.

"Participation is not extended to candidates because they might prove interesting or entertaining," the commission said in a formal statement. The purpose of the debates is to present "those candidates from whom the American people actually will choose the next president and vice president of the United States."

Being excluded from the debates "is devastating" for Perot, said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "Undoubtedly he'll get some sympathy points in the polls over the next few days. . . . But without this opportunity, how is he going to move up?"

Perot could try to use the commission's suggestion to generate support, said political analyst Kevin Phillips, noting that the co-chairmen of the commission are former chairmen of the two national parties, Republican Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Democrat Paul G. Kirk Jr., who now are both high-powered Washington lobbyists.

"If you want to be Patrick Henry, you just got your chance," Phillips said. "If this doesn't electrify them, I don't know what will," he added, referring to Perot's supporters.

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