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Hartford Courant
Janice D'Arcy

Thursday, August 19, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Long a champion of inclusive presidential debates, Ralph Nader has urged voters this year to support alternative debates.

But now the independent candidate is facing a potentially humiliating development. His campaign may not meet the minimum requirements to qualify for those alternative "open" debates.

"Given the political climate this year and the hostility toward him, it's not clear that he will meet our criteria," said George Farah, a board member of the Citizens Debate Commission, which is organizing the alternative presidential debates that Nader repeatedly has praised.

This new wrinkle, which the Nader campaign all but refuses to acknowledge, highlights the rocky path Nader chose in deciding to forgo any national party backing this year.

To participate in the alternative debates, the Citizens Debate Commission requires a presidential candidate be on enough state ballots to conceivably win an electoral majority in November - 269 electoral votes.

The third-party candidates who head the Libertarian, Green and Constitution parties are all expected to be on enough state party ballots to meet that requirement.

But as an independent, Nader has had to petition to get on almost every state ballot one at a time. It is an effort that has consumed Nader's campaign resources and has been almost constantly challenged by infuriated Democrats.

"Ballot access in the United States is an embarrassment. But wewould have no trouble in meeting requirements in all 50 states if the Democratic Party wasn't playing dirty tricks," said Nader campaign spokesman Kevin Zeese.

Democratic Party officials have denied any coordinated attack on Nader's ballot petitioning, but they have expressed support for individual Democrats and Democratic groups that challenge him.

At the same time, Zeese said the campaign is confident they will overcome the obstacles. He said their own analysis has them exceeding the petitioning requirements for the Citizens Debate Commission.

Nader has long been out of the running for gaining access to the major debates, hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates and scheduled for late September and October.

He would need to be polling at 15 percent to be considered for a place at their podium. Nader is now polling between 2 and 6 percent nationally. No other alternative candidate can realistically meet that threshold either.

The Citizens Debate Commission, which counts former presidential candidates John B. Anderson and Alan Keyes as board members, organized in the face of those restrictions because they say the CPD is biased toward the major parties.

Nader and other former presidential candidates agree. Together, they filed a complaint against the CPD and last week won a minor victory when a federal judge ruled that the Federal Elections Commission should investigate the CPD's 2000 decision to bar third-party candidates from the audience during the presidential debates.

In the face of the CPD debates, the citizens commission has scheduled its own set of debates in September and October. Farah said they would be held if at least one of the major party candidates participates. Wednesday, invitations were sent to both Sen. John Kerry and President Bush.

Farah said the group expects its debates to be inclusive, but it doesn't want them to devolve into a shouting match between unrealistic candidates. "What's the point of having a candidate participate in the debate if that candidate can't become president?"

In 2000, Nader easily met the less restrictive criteria. He ran with the Green Party then and with the party's help got on 43 state ballots.

This time, the next few weeks hold crucial deadlines for Nader. So far, he is assured a ballot line in about a dozen states and has submitted signatures in more than a dozen more.

Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, said he expects Nader will get on enough state ballots, but the candidate may very well end up barred from the debates which he promotes.

Nader has had a particularly hard time in states that are electorally crucial. His petitions are mired in legal disputes in Texas and Illinois among other states. Campaign watchers have doubts that he can meet the requirements of California, Massachusetts, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

Zeese said the campaign is confident Nader will be on those ballots come November. He did, however, concede that the campaign has given up trying in Georgia, Indiana and Oklahoma.