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Debate Uproar Shows No Sign Of Quieting

The Monitor Breakfasts

Regardless of how a federal judge rules this week on whether Ross Perot should be allowed into the presidential debates, one point is certain: The debate on debates is not about to go away.

And for the beleaguered co-chairmen of the Commission on Presidential Debates, who spoke to a Monitor breakfast yesterday, a settlement in the uproar of who should participate in these debates would be a welcome relief.

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The decision to recommend excluding Mr. Perot - and the debates themselves - "I hope will force a lot of people to look at the entire process," says Paul Kirk, a co-chair of the commission and former Democratic National Committee chairman.

Commissioners defend decision

Both Mr. Kirk, and his Republican counterpart Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., vehemently defend the commission's decision to recommend keeping Perot out of the debates, based on the criterion that he did not have a "realistic chance" of being elected president.

Yesterday, a team of lawyers working for Perot argued before US District Judge Thomas Hogan that the commission unfairly excluded Perot from the debates, allowing the two main political parties to monopolize the forum.

Kirk and Mr. Fahrenkopf argue that the criteria have remained identical to those used in the previous two elections. Four years ago, Perot was allowed to participate, based on his strong opinion poll numbers, some showing (before he temporarily dropped out of the race) that he had a shot at winning the presidency.

In hindsight, says Kirk, "the results in 1992 proved us not wrong that we erred on the side of inclusion, but wrong in the fact that we thought it might be realistic."

Though Perot received almost 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, he did not get one electoral vote.

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Unanswered flap

Probably "the most upsetting part" of this year's Perot debate flap, says Fahrenkopf, is that accusations against the commission - that it was "corruptly trying to keep people out" - have gone unanswered. Fahrenkopf asks the public to consider who is on the commission and on the advisory committee - people like Antonio Hernandez of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, a civil-rights activist who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I mean, there are people on this commission and advisory committee who have spent most of their lives trying to reach out and include other people," says Fahrenkopf.

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