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Presidential debates: Is three a crowd?

This may be the year televised presidential debates become a permanent institution in American politics. But without careful thought about which candidates are invited to participate, the debates this year could seriously weaken the nation's two-party political system.

If President Carte is the Democratic nominee and debates Ronald Reagan as he recently promised the League of Women Voters, he will have established the precedent of televised debates for an elected incumbent president. Although Gerald Ford was an incumbent when he debated Jimmy Carter in 1976, he came to office by default of his predecessor, not by popular vote. Presidential debates this year also will mark the second consicutive election in which presidential candidates debate on television; in politics, twice in a row goes a long way to establishing a tradition.

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The 1980 presidential debates also may set a precedent by including a third candidate. In 1976, independent Eugene McCarthy and three minor-party candidates tried unsuccessfully to convince first the league and then the Federal Communications Commission and the courts to include them in the debates. This year, independent John Anderson has stake out a claim to be included, a claim which finds support not only among his political adherents but also with those who believe three-way debates may prove more interesting or provide more political drama.

Television already has affected the political parties by giving candidates direct access to the voters and reducing their dependence on party loyalties. The inclusion of an independent or minor-party presidential candidate in televised debates can be a stamp of credibility for the candidate and turn a curiosity into a meaningful contender, further weakening the major political parties. The step of including any independent or third- party candidate, therefore, could have too great an impact on the political system to be taken simply in the interest of a better television show.

The basic qualifying criterion for including a candidate in the debates should be that the candidate apears on the ballot in a sufficient number of states to have at least the mathematical possibility of being elected. In other words, under no circumstances should the debates indlude a "spoiler" candidate, who at most could prevent the candidates of either of the major parties from being elected or create an electoral deadlock in which the House of Representatives would choose the president.

Beyond this basic criterion, no fixed formula is really possible. An independent task force convened by the Twentieth Century Fund to examine the subject concluded last year that, because there was no formula that would ensure a sensible result in each situation, it was important for a nonpartisan, broadly representative group such as the League of Women voters to sponsor the debates and decide whether an independent or third-party candidate warrants inclusion.

The league or any other debate sponsor should seek to identify relevant criteria which, in combination, will support a judgment that the candidate could actually win the election. Such criteria should include the following: the extent of voter support for the candidate as indicated in the major national polls; the amount of money raised by the candidate as well as the number of people making contributions; the scope of the candidate's campaign measured by such things as the amount of money spent, the number of campaign volunteers, and the number of states in which the candidate has campaigned or plans to campaign; the amount of time the candidate actually spends campaigning; the extent of media editorial support for the candidate and the extent of existing media coverage of the candidate's campaign measured by such things as invitations to appear on national programs; and the scope of the candidate's platform.

The criteria are, of course, relative. In determining whether John Anderson should be included in the 1980 debates, the criteria can be used to demonstrate how he compares in these and other areas with candidates Carter and Reagan and also with other independent or third-party candidates. Those comparisons should be the only factors used to decide his role in the debates.

In short, inclusion of John Anderson in the 1980 debates should not turn on the attractiveness of his candidacy to those issuing the invitations or on the possibility that another participant will heighten the political conflict. If an independent party candidate is to be included, it must be on the basis of reasonable criteria reasonably applied to distinguish a truly significant candiday from others. The way this question is dealth with this fall will have implications for the political system well beyond the outcome of the election.