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Debate panel wrestles with Perot predicament Slide in polls complicates question of including him; CAMPAIGN 1996


WASHINGTON -- With the three main candidates officially nominated, the Commission on Presidential Debates is struggling to decide whether Ross Perot should be included this fall, as in 1992, even though his poll standing has been slumping.

"It wasn't a slam-dunk decision last time, and it will be tougher this time," said Paul Kirk, a former Democratic Party chairman serving as co-chairman of the commission.

Another director of the commission, Newton Minow, a Democrat who is a lawyer from Chicago, said during the Democratic convention there last week that there had been discussions about setting the cutoff mark at 5 percent in the polls, or 10 percent or 15 percent. In the latest New York Times/CBS News trial heat, conducted Aug. 10 to Aug. 18, Perot stood at 8 percent.

In the end, polls will be only one factor among many to be weighed.

The decision is scheduled to be made Sept. 18, and it will almost certainly have an impact on the size of Perot's vote. If he is included, it would doubtless improve his showing at the polls; that, in turn, could help President Clinton, if politicians are correct in their assumption that more of Perot's votes would come from Bob Dole, the Republican nominee.

Mike McCurry, Clinton's press secretary, repeatedly refused at a breakfast meeting with reporters last week to be pinned down about whether the president wanted Perot included.

The other commission co-chairman, Frank Fahrenkopf, who is a former Republican Party chairman, said he was convinced that all the candidates admitted to the debates would take part in them this year.

"We have reached the point where it is impossible, in practical terms, for anyone to say no," he said. "Debates have become institutionalized. Even for the candidates to delay or play games these days costs them."

President George Bush haggled over the rules in 1992, delaying the start of the series until late in the campaign, and relenting only when he was confronted at campaign events by demonstrators dressed in chicken costumes. Nevertheless, at a time when voter turnout and television audiences were declining, the final debate at Michigan State University drew more viewers than any political event in American history: 97 million on the broadcast networks.

The commission's plans call for four debates this year, on consecutive Wednesdays starting Sept. 25. Three would involve the presidential candidates and one the vice-presidential nominees. Two would feature a single moderator sitting with the candidates at a table, one would have a moderator and the candidates at lecterns, and a fourth would be a town-hall-type meeting.

The candidates have not approved the schedule or formats.

Most viewers thought that the debates helped Perot four years ago, but his participation clearly made it more difficult for the major-party candidates to face off man-to-man. The national coordinator of Perot's Reform Party, Russell Verney, said last week that Perot expected to be asked again.

The commission's rules lay down 11 criteria for deciding whether to include minor-party candidates. The object, the rules say, "is to identify minor party candidates, if any, who have a realistic (i.e., more than theoretical) chance of being elected president of the United States."

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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