Voiceless Perot threatens to halt debates

Ross Perot's advisers last night threatened court action to block all candidates' debates this autumn, following a bipartisan commission's recommendation that the Texan billionaire should be excluded from the coming debates between President Bill Clinton and his Republican challenger, Bob Dole.

In a unanimous decision that will delight Mr Dole as much as it will disappoint the White House, the 10-member Commission on Presidential Debates said that Mr Perot, candidate of his own newly founded Reform Party, did not have a "realistic chance" of amassing the 270 electoral- college votes required for election.

As Frank Fahrenkopf, a commission co-chairman, said in defence of the decision, Mr Perot failed to win a single electoral vote in 1992, despite capturing 19 per cent of the popular vote, the best performance by an independent candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. This time, however, Mr Perot is stuck at 5 per cent or thereabouts.

Candidates could not qualify simply because "they were interesting or entertaining", Mr Fahrenkopf said; the commission had made an "unvarnished" judgement of Mr Perot's prospects, and found them wanting.

In theory, the decision could be reversed should the two major parties want Mr Perot to participate. But, given the opposition of the Republicans, that seemed inconceivable yesterday. Less inconceivable, however, is that Mr Clinton debates Mr Perot one-to-one, a ploy aimed at increasing the Texan's stature and appeal - thus, the White House calculates, his ability to split the anti-Clinton vote.

Mr Fahrenkopf said the recommendation applies only to the first of the three scheduled debates, and that "if circumstances changed", Mr Perot might be allowed in. This however would require a surge in his support, or overwhelming public demand that he be included.

The latter, and not the courts, may offer the Perot camp its best hope of overturning what campaign co-ordinator Russell Verney called "a travesty of justice". Two out of three Americans, according to the polls, want to see Mr Perot, who is receiving $30m (pounds 20m) of federal funds on the basis of his 1992 performance, go head-to-head against Mr Clinton and Mr Dole, and yesterday's ruling will generate not only controversy, but possibly a swell of sympathy in favour of Mr Perot.

Yesterday, meanwhile, Clinton and Dole representatives met in a new effort to agree on dates and format for the debates. The Clinton camp wants the first debate, currently set for St Louis on 26 September, put back until the start of October. Mr Dole wants four, not three debates, but each of them 60 instead of 90 minutes in length.