With the state primaries behind them, the three candidates for governor in Virginia are engaged in their first fight of the general election campaign: Should independent H. Russell Potts Jr. be allowed into debates traditionally reserved for Democratic and Republican nominees?
Republican gubernatorial nominee Jerry W. Kilgore said this week that he would not support Potts's inclusion in any of the debates that he will participate in and that the forums should be reserved for candidates who "can actually win the election."
The campaign of Democratic nominee Timothy M. Kaine said it would welcome Potts's inclusion.
"We're happy to have him. . . . We don't have any objection to Russ Potts being there," said Kaine's press secretary, Delacey Skinner. But, she added, "participants don't get to make decisions on who participates in debates."
Potts said Friday that voters should have the chance to hear each candidate, no matter how unlikely the bid may be.
"It's Democracy 101," he said. "All Virginians are entitled to hear the views of all three candidates."
He points to 1994, when the Virginia Bar Association had a debate among then-Sen. Charles S. Robb (D), Republican nominee Oliver L. North and a pair of independents, J. Marshall Coleman and former governor L. Douglas Wilder.
"There's precedent many times in this country. There's precedent many times in Virginia, for goodness' sakes," said Potts, who submitted 24,000 signatures to the State Board of Elections supporting his candidacy last week.
Students of Virginia politics said Potts needs to be on the stage with both major-party candidates to appear viable and to attract contributors.
"Really, what it is, is the money. You need it immediately to keep going," said Toni-Michelle C. Travis, an associate professor of politics at George Mason University. "If he can't get that kind of exposure, then he's doomed."
Potts, the Republican state senator from Winchester, jumped into the race as an independent in February.
He has raised only a fraction of the money that Kilgore and Kaine have and has not been included in public polls released thus far.
When Wilder and Coleman were included in the 1994 debates, they were both attracting more than 10 percent of the vote in polls, said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia.
"You have to be over a certain percentage," said Sabato, who has hosted several gubernatorial debates and is arranging an October debate for the candidates that might include Potts.
Kaine and Kilgore will debate before the Virginia Bar Association on July 16. The debate will not be opened to Potts because it was arranged before he entered the campaign, according to the bar association.
"If it came up now, I guess we would take a look at it, but it also depends on reaching an agreement with all the participants that they're happy with having all these people there," said Breck Arrington, executive vice president of the bar association.
The Democrat and the Republican also will meet after Labor Day in Northern Virginia at a debate hosted by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. Potts will not be included in that one, either.
"It's never been open to just anyone who wants to declare for the seat. It's always been a debate between the two nominees of the two major parties," said William D. Lecos, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce. "That's the tradition of the chamber debate, and that's the practice we held up this year."
But there are nearly 20 potential debates that the three men could participate in; Kaine already has challenged Kilgore to more than a dozen, saying the candidates should debate in each congressional district. Kilgore has agreed to debate next month and in September and may consider others, said his press secretary, Tim Murtaugh. Potts and Kaine have accepted invitations to several other debates.
"We're going to keep pounding away at this," Potts said, referring to the prospect that Kilgore might not be at the debates when he and Kaine are. "If we have to debate an empty chair, we're going to debate an empty chair."