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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Friday, October 07, 2005

Potts sues debate officials; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — Independent gubernatorial candidate H. Russell Potts Jr. filed a federal lawsuit Thursday in a last-minute bid to get into the final major debate of the campaign.

Potts sued the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and its director, Larry Sabato, in federal court in Charlottesville, asking the court to intervene and stop any debates the center might host and Sabato might moderate that don’t include the Republican state senator from Winchester.

Republican Jerry Kilgore and Democrat Tim Kaine are scheduled to debate Sunday night at 7 p.m. on live television from Richmond. An emergency hearing on Potts’ motion is set for noon today in Charlottesville.

Thursday at 10 a.m. was the cutoff for Potts to be included in the debate. Organizers said they would include Potts if he had support from at least 15 percent of voters polled in two independent public opinion surveys. Potts never achieved that level of support, topping out at 9 percent in a July Mason-Dixon poll.

Potts’ campaign has continued to insist that the 15 percent standard is unfair, and that the only standard for inclusion should be whether a candidate is on the ballot.

“Has Sabato forgotten Virginians in the process of organizing this debate?” Tom D’Amore, Potts’ lead strategist, says in a statement posted on the campaign’s Web site.

“By keeping Russ Potts off the stage, the Center for Politics has established an arbitrary requirement of 15 percent in the polls, stemming from Jerry Kilgore’s constant refusal to debate Russ,” he says. “Why is keeping Jerry Kilgore happy more important than giving voters a chance to see the three candidates debate each other?

“Russ Potts has met Virginia’s standard for being on the ballot as a candidate for Governor by submitting over 24,000 signatures. The requirements set by Sabato and the Center of Politics for participating in the upcoming debate are arbitrary and should be rejected.”

The Kaine campaign has no problem including Potts in the debate — Kaine has been on stage with the independent candidate three times already. “We certainly welcome him to the stage,” said Kaine’s press secretary, Delacey Skinner.

At the same time, she said, the campaign “respects the prerogative” of debate organizers, adding that it was unfortunate that organizers of some events appeared to have been “pressured” by Kilgore’s camp into keeping Potts away.

Kilgore was dismissive of claims that he was afraid to debate Potts.

“You’ve got to be a serious candidate before you can get into the debates. I’ve agreed that he can be in if he can get 15 percent,” Kilgore said at a campaign stop in Winchester on Thursday.

“Now, folks, if I were just polling 15 percent there’s not a person in Virginia that would think I was a serious candidate,” Kilgore said. “He’s not even polling at 5 percent.”

The issue of pressure from Kilgore has come up with the center’s debate before. Sabato himself issued a letter to several Virginia publications asking for a correction when a rash of editorials criticized him for allegedly acquiescing to a Kilgore request for a 15 percent standard.

But it was Kilgore, not Sabato, who caved, according to the center. Kilgore was presented with the 15 percent standard long before August and “immediately balked.”

“When we consulted with legal experts before making our debate proposal this year, the one thing they insisted upon was that we should be consistent and not arbitrary, and therefore should maintain the same standard used for years and years in considering Mr. Potts’ independent candidacy,” Sabato says in the August missive.

The debate was apparently on shaky ground until Thursday morning, over a “no-use” rule regarding debate footage. Such a rule would ban using debate video and picture in campaign ads and materials.

Kilgore’s camp wanted an additional agreement outside of existing rules, while Kaine’s campaign held that “no-use” was a late addition to the debate agreement.

Kilgore said he was ready to debate, regardless of Kaine’s actions.

“Absolutely. There’s never been any question in our mind [that the debate would go forward]. We all signed the agreement back in August to agree to the rules of Channel 12 and the moderator,” Kilgore said.

The two sides came to an agreement later in the day, clearing the way for the debate to go forward.

“We are pleased that Tim Kaine abandoned his scheme to hold the final debate of the campaign hostage to his cynical desire to use debate footage in attack political ads,” said Ken Hutcheson, Kilgore’s campaign manager.

Kaine did sign, but only because Kilgore was going to duck another debate, Skinner said.

“When it became apparent that Jerry Kilgore really was going to risk the only opportunity Virginia voters were going to have” to see both candidates questioned on television, “we decided that we would go ahead and sign.”

Election Day is Nov. 8.