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The Columbus Dispatch
Jonathan Riskind

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The good news for Capital University is that the Bexley-based institution has been chosen as a site for a 2004 presidential debate, one its sponsors say will be more open to third-party candidates and more likely to spark serious discussion about issues.

The bad news is the two major candidates, as of now, aren't likely to be present.

That's because the proposed Sept. 22 encounter between President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is one of five presidential and one vice presidential forums being sponsored by the Citizens' Debate Commission this fall.

The newly formed panel, whose backers include former independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson, announced its plans yesterday at a news conference at the National Press Club.

However, the Commission on Presidential Debates -- which is headed by former Democratic and GOP party chairs -- months ago set a schedule for three presidential debates, as well as a vice presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. This is the commission that has conducted the presidential debates since 1988, and the Bush and Kerry campaigns are expected to agree to participate.

George Farah, executive director of an organization called Open Debates and the creator of the Citizens' Debate Commission, acknowledged it will be "no easy task" to get Kerry and Bush to appear at his group's events.

There will no debate at Capital or any of his commission's sites if at least one of the major candidates doesn't agree to appear -- and it would be tough to garner national media attention without both, Farah added.

But Farah and other supporters of a new debate commission say the current format, which requires a third-party candidate to register at least 15 percent in national polls to participate, effectively is controlled by the major parties, to the detriment of the public.

That contention is dismissed by Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates. She said her nonprofit, nonpartisan organization is independent of the Democratic and Republican parties.

"The candidates and parties do not have control over what we do," Brown said.

Under Citizens' Debate Commission criteria, a candidate would have to get on the ballot in enough states to win the Electoral College vote and register at 5 percent in national polls, or gain a majority in polls asking which candidates should be in the debates.

Capital officials were enthusiastic about the university being a debate site, new group or not.

"Groups such as the Citizens' Debate Commission are trying to offer new alternatives to increase awareness and activity when it comes to the electoral process," said Nichole Johnson, a Capital spokeswoman.

But Brown said, "The major-party nominees are highly unlikely to participate if it looks like the stage will include several other candidates that may, in fact, be contributing something to the 'process' but are unlikely to win the election. That's just a practical fact."

The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced that Miami, St. Louis, Mo., and Tempe, Ariz., will serve as presidential debate sites this year.