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Third-party hopefuls sue for inclusion

WASHINGTON -- Several former third-party presidential candidates filed a lawsuit yesterday to block the Commission on Presidential Debates from sponsoring future debates, asserting the organization is biased toward the Democratic and Republican parties.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, says the debate commission is a partisan organization that violates federal election law by letting only Democratic and Republican candidates participate in the debates it organizes.

Those filing the lawsuit include consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the Green Party's presidential nominee in 2000 and a possible independent candidate this year; John Hagelin and Patrick Buchanan, former Reform Party candidates; and Howard Phillips, a former Constitution Party candidate.

The lawsuit asks the court to force the Federal Election Commission to stop the debate commission from sponsoring four debates scheduled to start Sept. 30. The third-party candidates first sought relief from the FEC last June, but complain that the agency has failed to take action.

FEC spokesman Bob Biersack said he could not comment on pending litigation.

Janet Brown, executive director of the debate commission, said the lawsuit raises many of the same issues that courts rejected before the last round of presidential debates.

Founded in 1987, the debate commission is a nonprofit corporation that allows candidates with at least 15 percent support in national polls to participate in its debates. Third-party candidates have long complained that they are unfairly excluded, but the commission says it wants to limit participation to those candidates with a realistic chance of winning the election.

The lawsuit also alleges that the commission excluded the plaintiffs from sitting in the audience at 2000 debates and that it distributed a `face book' of third-party candidates at one debate so staff could recognize and deny them access to the debate hall even if they had a ticket.

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