The Great Debate Protests

LAS VEGAS -- George W. Bush and Al Gore may have finally smoothed over their differences on presidential debates, but Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, for one, is not satisfied with the results.

Nader, whose only sliver of hope to contend in these elections is to share TV time with Bush and Gore, announced he will be outside the debate locations and available to the press for at least one of the three scheduled events, and that supporters will hold a demonstration in Boston to support his exclusion.

"We cannot allow our democracy to exclude competitors who want to try to improve the political system," he told an audience of 400 at the University of Nevada Las Vegas on Friday afternoon. "If we get on the debates, all bets are off. Because Jesse Ventura was at eight percent in Minnesota before he got on the debates. And he got on 10 debates and he won the governorship of Minnesota with 38 percent of the vote."

The Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan group founded by the two main political parties, has decided that third-party candidates must have 15 percent minimum support in the polls to qualify.

"I mean, this is the most amazing thing!" Nader said. "How did we ever get into this situation, where the two parties control the debate commission, they created it, they fund it with beer money, auto money and tobacco money, and then they say 'We don't want anybody to compete with us.'

"You don't see that in the marketplace, do you?" Nader asked. "You don't see that in nature. Imagine, can nature regenerate itself if they keep seeds from sprouting? Can the business community regenerate itself if they block entrepreneurs and innovators? Only the two parties get away with it. And they get away with it because the media lets them get away with it."

Nader, who has filed suit against the FEC, has been encouraging supporters to write and call the major TV networks asking them to create their own multi-candidate formats.

"The media could say, 'Enough of you, we're gonna get together and sponsor a massive four-way debate every week on the networks,'" he suggested, apparently including Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan in this scenario.

Candidates should be included, the consumer advocate said, if they command five percent national support or if a majority of voters polled want them in the debates. Nader has been estimating his own support at between four and eight percent nationally, while current nonpartisan polls have him slightly lower. And while he has repeatedly claimed a "vast majority" of Americans want him included in the debates, polls released this week actually showed a minority agreed.

At a Southern California fundraising event Wednesday night, Nader told supporters the two parties were spooked when Ross Perot went to the 1992 debates and then won 19 percent of the vote. "They'll never make that mistake again," he said. This, one day after he appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno brandishing a rubber chicken to punctuate his claim that his major party rivals are scared to debate him.

Nader has been frustrated by the lack of regular national media coverage of his campaign, arguing several times a day that newspapers like The New York Times are "violating their own criteria of newsworthiness" by ignoring him. His public events and press conferences -- some of which are not even advertised on his Web site -- were generally covered by 10 to 20 reporters during his four-day swing through California and Nevada this week. The Associated Press has been the only major media outlet consistently present.

"It's a Catch-22," he told one of many sympathetic questioners. "See, you don't go up in the polls unless you get the mass media, and you don't get mass media unless you're going up in the polls."

Many of his supporters throughout the week have said the "giant media corporations" are afraid of Nader, because his message is so radical and the media's policies are so corrupt. Often, Nader agrees.

"If you look at the Federal Elections Commission (campaign fundraising reports), you see all kinds of contributions from CBS, NBC and ABC executives to both parties," he said Friday. "They're not about to expose that on '60 Minutes,' or the evening news."

News executives might also be put off by Nader's persistent suggestions they should pay "billions of dollars in rent" for being allowed to use the public airwaves -- rent that would then be used for "our own stations and programs," he said.

"Any democracy worth its salt should never have to rely so heavily on commercial media. But that's the case here: It's in the hands of the mass media whether we're going to break through or not," he said.


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