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A Debate Erupts Over the Debate

Politics: Simon asked the Green Party candidate to be a guest, but the Davis camp was wary of event becoming 'a circus.'

October 07, 2002|MARK Z. BARABAK and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon Jr. made a last-ditch effort to upend today's debate with Gov. Gray Davis, inviting as his personal guest a Green Party candidate and political polar opposite whose presence would have signaled an effort to ideologically double-team the incumbent Democrat.

The invitee, Peter Camejo, had not been included in the debate by the host Los Angeles Times because he failed to reach a threshold of viability for third-party candidates. Officials at the paper informed the Simon campaign that Camejo would not be allowed into the paper's headquarters, where the two-man debate is scheduled to begin at noon.

Camejo said Sunday that he will come anyway as Simon's guest.

The last-minute tussle, which included a short threat Sunday by the Davis forces to boycott the debate, underscored the stakes for both campaigns today. Comfortably ahead in the polls, Davis is seeking to deal with as few unpredictable events as possible before the Nov. 5 election. Simon, trailing since a confluence of negative publicity dominated much of the summer, is trying mightily to shake up the race.

Simon's effort to leap ahead of Davis has long included the strange alliance between himself--a conservative Republican-- and the far more liberal Camejo. The Simon campaign for months has pushed for Camejo to be included in debates and has sent memos to political reporters talking up the Green Party candidate's prospects, hoping to draw attention to weaknesses on Davis' left flank. Expanding that move onto a debate stage would have been a risky venture, but Simon appeared to be aiming for a debate in which Camejo came at Davis from the left and Simon from the right. Such pincer moves against the front-runner are common in multi-candidate debates.

Martha Goldstein, a spokeswoman for The Times, said that in extending invitations only to Davis and Simon, the newspaper applied rules that have recently governed participation in the presidential debates. Those guidelines require participants to meet a threshold of at least 15% of the likely vote in public opinion surveys.

"It would seem you want to have a discussion among the two candidates most likely to win so voters can draw real inferences and conclusions about where they stand on issues," Goldstein said.

Camejo received 4% of the likely vote in a Los Angeles Times Poll published last week, little more than four other minor-party candidates on the ballot. Other polls recorded similar levels of support. Simon has not pressed for the presence of the other minor candidates, some of whom would challenge him for conservative voters.

In communications over the last few weeks, Camejo has strenuously objected to his exclusion, Goldstein said, and it was feared he might try to force himself on stage or otherwise disrupt the scheduled 60-minute debate if allowed into The Times building.

Camejo said Sunday that he simply wants to observe the debate and speak to the news media afterward, and he promised not to disrupt the proceedings.

"I want to be available to the media that does want to hear my point of view, and I do not see why the Los Angeles Times or Davis has any right to prevent me from being heard," Camejo said, as he pledged to attend despite the paper's promised lockout.

He brushed off the earlier threats by the Davis campaign that his presence would lead to cancellation.

"I am not going to leave the room because Gov. Davis tells me to leave the room," Camejo said, adding that he intends to present his invitation today. If barred, he said, he would "explore his options"--such as joining in the Green Party protest outside, or looking at possible legal action.

Camejo, a onetime Berkeley radical who now runs a progressive investing business in the Bay Area, said he opposes both Simon and Davis and does not believe in trying to "spoil" an election. He argued that winner-take-all voting laws passed by Democrats and Republicans should be blamed for thrown elections.

Ed Rollins, a strategist for the Simon campaign, said he was "outraged by the fact the L.A. Times is censoring who we can bring as our guest." He insisted that Camejo's presence was not a ploy but rather a result of the friendship developed with Simon after they participated in a two-way debate last month.

Davis has been leery of giving any publicity to Camejo, whose left-leaning positions in theory threaten to siphon liberal support away from the incumbent. "We're not interested in participating in a circus," Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the Davis camp, said early Sunday. "If Simon wants to clown around, he can do it elsewhere."

Later, Salazar confirmed that Davis would attend as scheduled. "We believe the Simon campaign was obviously trying to use [Camejo] as a prop," he said. "We had a very clear understanding from the Los Angeles Times that no props would be allowed."

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