WASHINGTON -- In a surprise decision, the Commission on Presidential Debates recommended yesterday that Ross Perot be excluded from this fall's televised debates, saying he has no "realistic chance" of becoming president.
Perot, whose 1992 presidential candidacy was boosted by his participation in that year's debates, had no immediate comment. An official of his Reform Party said the party would go to court to try to block a Clinton-Dole debate, though similar efforts failed in 1988 and 1992.
Excluding Perot from the debates would be a severe blow to his long-shot candidacy, which is attracting less than 10 percent support in public opinion polls. But it is not clear what long-term impact the commission's recommendation might have on the outcome of the Clinton-Dole contest, according to analysts and politicians not directly connected to either presidential camp.
Dole strategists, who want Perot kept out, hailed the decision as a victory in their effort to gain one-on-one matchups with Clinton. The president's camp, which prefers a three-way debate, expressed regret over the decision.
Though the commission's recommendation is not binding, it is expected to be accepted, at least for the first debate. Ultimately, Dole and Clinton, whose representatives began negotiating face-to-face yesterday, have the power to set the terms of their debates.
In yesterday's negotiating session, which produced no agreement, the Clinton side proposed a pair of two-hour presidential debates with Perot invited to one. Dole wants four one-hour presidential debates, all without Perot, campaign officials said.
The decision to freeze out Perot was unexpected. Sources close to the commission had predicted privately that the panel would not be so bold, given the fact that Perot was admitted to the debates in 1992 and had received federal funding for his campaign this year.
After a meeting of the panel here yesterday, the recommendation was announced by its co-chairmen: Paul G. Kirk Jr., a former Democratic national chairman, and Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a former Republican national chairman.
The panel said Perot, and other independent or third-party hopefuls, had failed to meet its standard of having "a realistic chance to win the election."
The commission said its ruling was based on the unanimous recommendations of an advisory committee, headed by a retired Harvard political scientist, Richard E. Neustadt, that examined recent polls and interviewed journalists in assessing Perot's chances.
"This is the World Series," Kirk said. "This isn't picking the wild card, the guy who was third in the polls."
The chairmen said the commission did not want to include Perot or other candidates simply for entertainment value. Kirk pointed out that while polls show that some 62 percent of Americans say they would like to see Perot included in the debates, a larger proportion -- 70 percent -- say they would not vote for him under any circumstances.
"These very same criteria were acceptable to Mr. Perot four years ago," noted Fahrenkopf.
In response to a question, Kirk denied that the commission had erred in allowing Perot into the debates that year. Perot was included last time because he had virtually unlimited funds to spend and, at one point that year, appeared to have a chance of winning, he explained.
In 1992, Perot wound up in third place, with 19 percent of the vote, the strongest showing by a third-party candidate in 80 years. He did not win a single state, although he finished second in two, and he received no electoral votes.
This year, Perot has agreed to accept public funding of about $30 million, less than half the amount he spent last time. His standing in the polls today, about 8 percent, is almost exactly what it was right before the '92 debates.
While Perot himself was silent, his campaign charged that the commission's recommendation reflected just why the two-party political system is broken.
"The decision by this commission demonstrates what is wrong with Washington today and how representative democracy is being strangled," said Perot's running mate, Pat Choate, who would also be excluded from any vice presidential debate. "American politics and governance is a tightly controlled monopoly, controlled by two parties and special interests."
Russ Verney, the Reform Party's national coordinator, said the party would seek a temporary restraining order this week in federal court in Washington to prevent the debate from occurring. Verney said the suit would argue that the commission should have relied only on objective criteria, such as the candidates' ability to get their names on ballots in all 50 states, rather than "subjective" factors, such as polling data.
If Perot cannot participate in the debate, Verney said, he will try to buy 45 minutes of air time on network television afterward to offer a response.