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It's Time for Them to Go

By Stuart Rothenberg

Each party has now had at least a handful of debates consisting all of the "credible" candidates, which means that the sponsors have been "fair" and given exposure to everyone. Now it's time to be fair to voters, which means shrinking the number of participants in the next flurry of "debates."

In other words, it's time for them - Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, Dennis Kucinch and Mike Gravel - to go. Go to Iowa. Go to New Hampshire. Go somewhere. But get them off the stage with the credible candidates.

We can all differ on exactly where to draw the line, but let's at least draw one.

You want to set an artificial percentage of support in national polls or Iowa and New Hampshire surveys? Fine. Just do it. You prefer excluding House members (since a sitting House member hasn't won a Presidential election in more than a century) and candidates who haven't been in office for a decade? Ok.

I'm not saying that it's time to winnow the debate fields down to the top tier candidates on either side. No, I wouldn't exclude Senators McCain, Brownback, Biden and Dodd or former Governor Huckabee. True, they are long-shots in the Presidential race, but there is a huge difference between them and the group above that I mentioned - the no shots.

The long shots have raised money, put together experienced campaign teams and have at least some chance of being nominated. They certainly deserve more time on the national stage, while the Tancredo's and Kucinich's of the world have had their moment to make their cases and push their issues.

Yes, I know. Excluding candidates from forums and debates will generate a barrage of complaints from those who are excluded and from critics of "the establishment." They'll moan and groan that the media (or corporate America) is silencing them, denying the platform that they need to be heard. Of course they can't win if the media "silences" them, they'll say. "It's "censorship!" they'll scream.

Oh baloney. You could give Ron Paul and Mike Gravel an hour of free TV time from now until Christmas and they still wouldn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of being nominated by their respective parties.

Right now, Hunter, Tancredo and Paul together take up more than 35 percent of the time in a GOP debate (assuming participants get roughly equal amounts of time to answer questions). That's valuable time that the credible candidates don't get.

The point of debates, after all, is to help voters decide who they favor for President, not to give everyone who wants to be President exposure.

In the Democratic debates, Gravel and Kucinich together take about one-quarter of the time. That time could be better used to give the other hopefuls - one of whom will be the Democratic nominee for President - to answer questions.

Eliminating the five hopefuls from the upcoming debates might cost David Letterman a joke or two about Dennis Kucinich's wife, but that's about it.

But would excluding a handful of hopefuls at this point, months before the actual delegate selection begins, be "fair?"

Absolutely. Debate hosts invariably weed out candidates as not credible, so it's not a matter of whether to limit participants but how to do so. This year, Republican Presidential candidate John Cox, who finished fifth in an Illinois GOP primary for Congress in 2000 and third in his party's 2002 Illinois Senate primary, hasn't been invited to debates. And he shouldn't be, since he has no chance of winning.

So let's stop the charade. The broadcast and cable TV networks have given their platforms to Gravel and Paul and Hunter. Now it's time to limit participation in major events to candidates who have at least some chance of being nominated for President.

The Iowa caucuses are coming up quickly. It's time to give more time, and more scrutiny, to the credible candidates, and the best way to do that is to exclude the "no chance" hopefuls from future debates.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the The Rothenberg Political Report, and a regular columnist for Roll Call Newspaper.

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