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Legal Wrangle Over Debates And Who Picks Electoral Victors

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A team of lawyers is gearing up for a legal showdown this week over whether Ross Perot and other third-party candidates should have a spot on the stage at Sunday's nationally televised presidential debate.

The forum offers the biggest single audience a politician can get - about half of the eligible voters in America. But more than that is at stake, say third-party proponents. At issue is the openness and fairness of democracy in the United States at a time when many voters are deeply dissatisfied with how the political system operates. Still, critics see the legal challenge as a desperate gambit by marginal parties for an unearned role on center stage.

Tomorrow, a federal judge here will be asked to rule on the fairness of the decision to invite only President Clinton and his GOP challenger, Bob Dole, to participate in the two debates next month.

The fate of the debates themselves may hang in the balance should US District Judge Thomas Hogan find merit in the charge that the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has abused its authority by maintaining a monopoly on the debates for the benefit of the Democratic and Republican candidates.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole would agree to participate in an expanded debate should Judge Hogan order the commission to include Mr. Perot and perhaps other candidates.

"This is a case of extraordinary national importance," says Thomas Newmark, an attorney based in St. Louis who represents John Hagelin, the candidate of the Natural Law Party.

It was Mr. Newmark who first filed suit against the Federal Election Commission and the Commission on Presidential Debates to seek to reverse Mr. Hagelin's exclusion. Days later, a team of lawyers for Perot filed a similar lawsuit, adopting much of Newmark's legal work.

The central issue is whether the debates commission used unfair criteria to stack the deck against third-party candidates to exclude them from the debates.

Commission lawyers say the criteria were legal and fair.

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