New hope dawning for third parties

October 13, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Third-party leaders are drawing hope from arguments before the Supreme Court seeking the right for so-called fringe candidates to be included in campaign debates aired by public television.

Comments from justices hearing the arguments suggest they may rule that the public sponsorship requires that some, if not all, such candidates be given equal treatment with major-party standard-bearers.

The ruling is not expected before next June, but the observations of key justices in the case of a minor independent 1992 candidate for an Arkansas congressional seat indicate they are leaning toward differentiating between the rights of private and public television networks to exclude fringe candidates.

Such a ruling would not affect the sort of debates that have been held in the last six presidential elections since 1976, all of which were conducted on private network television.

In the 1992 campaign, independent candidate Ross Perot was included. But in 1996, under new criteria set by the Commission on Presidential Debates, he was excluded.

Because Mr. Perot's new Reform Party as well as the Libertarian Party and others are planning to run candidates for lesser offices in 1998, the matter is of great concern to them, since public television stations may air debates at the lower levels, as they have in some states in the past.

According to Bill Winter, director of communications for the Libertarian Party, his organization ran candidates for 800 offices from city council to governor and in about 160 congressional districts in 1996, and plans to post candidates in as many as 1,000 races in the next election cycle.

"The Libertarian Party believes government shouldn't be in the business of funding debates in the first place," Mr. Winter says, "but if it's going to, our candidates shouldn't be excluded when the taxpayers' money is being used."

Paul Truax, chairman of the Reform Party in Texas, argues that "the two major parties have a monopoly on politics in this country" that never will be broken if candidates from other parties can't be heard.

Expanded slates

In 1998, he says, the Reform Party in his state will be running candidates for commissioner of agriculture, probably for state attorney general and for House seats in two or three congressional districts, and should be admitted to public television debates involving those offices.

During the Supreme Court hearing on the case, in which a former member of the American Nazi Party named Ralph Forbes was excluded from a congressional debate by Arkansas public television, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist sounded doubtful about the right of public television to reject certain candidates, but he also seemed sympathetic to some way to exclude what he called "Willy Wacko" candidates.

Both the Libertarian and Reform Parties would contend strenuously that candidates running under their banner could not be dismissed as "wacko." Both parties, as Messrs. Winter and Truax noted, qualified for ballot position in all 50 states in 1996.

They both said they agreed there should be some way to keep frivolous candidates out of debates -- but they took strong issue with the yardstick for participation used for the 1996 presidential debates.

In 1996, the Commission on Presidential Debates stipulated that, in order to participate, a candidate had to be on the ballot in enough states to attain the electoral majority of 270 votes and had to have substantial organization and funding.

Both the Libertarian and Reform Parties qualified on these grounds but were judged short on one other -- that, in the judgment of the commission, they had no "realistic" chance of winning.

While the Arkansas case does not deal with presidential debates over private television, a favorable ruling for third-party candidates in this case would doubtless increase pressure for their inclusion in such high-profile debates as well, certainly from Ross Perot if nobody else.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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