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Perot Tries to Argue His Way Into Presidential Debates

Politics: As promised, Reform Party candidate files lawsuit demanding that he be included. He also plans federal complaint seeking more TV ad time.

September 24, 1996|BILL STALL | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Reform Party candidate Ross Perot moved on several fronts Monday to seize political advantage after his exclusion from the 1996 presidential debates, including a new television ad campaign that declares: "Let Ross speak. The truth never hurt anyone."

As promised, Perot filed suit in federal court seeking to force his way into the debates. He also is preparing a complaint with federal authorities to allow him to buy more commercial time on television. And he promised to show up at the original debate site in St. Louis on Wednesday, challenging Republican Bob Dole to do likewise.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan scheduled a two-hour hearing on Perot's suit for Oct. 1, less than one week before the first scheduled meeting between Dole and President Clinton in Hartford, Conn.

Most experts give Perot little chance of getting the federal courts to force his inclusion in the debates or to halt them all together. Even if he won at the lower-court level, they said, appeals would drag the case well beyond the Nov. 5 election.

But Perot is the man who will not go away. He has become a major focus of attention in the presidential campaign ever since the Commission on Presidential Debates voted unanimously on Sept. 17 to exclude him.

"We've really gotten a lot of favorable support over this," said Sharon Holman, Perot's press aide.

The Texas billionaire has scheduled a flurry of appearances on news and interview programs during the next several days, and he vowed to show up in St. Louis, Mo., on Wednesday "hoping that Bob Dole will be there to debate him," Holman said from Reform Party headquarters in Dallas.

The first of three proposed debates was to have been in St. Louis then, but that meeting was scuttled in negotiations between the Clinton and Dole camps.

Holman said Perot also will file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission seeking greater access to network television for his paid commercials. Perot has complained that, with limited exceptions, he has been "shut down" by the major television networks.

By late Monday, in fact, the Perot organization had not been able to buy time to air several new ads about the debates, Holman said. But the commercials were getting considerable attention on news programs.

Perot specifically blames Dole for keeping him out of the two presidential debates now scheduled--in Hartford on Oct. 6 and in San Diego on Oct. 16.

There also will be a single debate between Vice President Al Gore and Republican nominee Jack Kemp in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Oct. 9.

At least one expert said Dole, whose campaign insisted on excluding Perot from the debates, will suffer some from the Reform Party nominee's biting criticism, but not as badly as he would had Perot been included.

"Perot has got his teeth into Dole's ankles," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

But Sabato added: "Dole's gamble is that even though he will lose a little bit of blood this way, he would be losing a lot more were Perot there, because Perot would go after Dole more than Clinton."

Perot's lawsuit was filed in Washington by Jamin Raskin, associate dean of the American University School of Law and an expert on election law who said he had no contact with Perot before he was approached last week to handle the case.

Raskin said the debate commission was "in blatant violation" of Federal Election Commission rules governing the sponsorship of political debates.

The ruling was made unanimously by the 10-member commission--five Democrats and five Republicans--after receiving that recommendation from its five-member advisory committee of political scientists.

Janet Brown, a spokeswoman for the commission, noted that the group used the same criteria as in 1992, when it voted to include Perot in all three 90-minute debates.

Raskin argued, though, that the debate commission was operating under some 1995 FEC rules that have never been tested in court.

Dole has said he had nothing to do with the commission's decision. What is relevant, however, is that the commission's action was advisory only and had no force of law. The final decision was reached between the two campaigns last Saturday.

Dole's strategists believe that only if he is able to meet one-on-one with Clinton will he be able to score the sort of breakthrough that his struggling campaign needs.

Sabato said: "What Dole has got to do is raise some of Perot's issues. But of course Clinton will be doing that too.

"If I know Clinton, he will manage to mention a number of times that he wishes Ross Perot was right there with him," he added.

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