On July 16, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine will face Republican Jerry W. Kilgore in the campaign season's first gubernatorial debate while independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr. looks on from the audience.

In the weeks that follow, Kaine and Potts are scheduled to square off several times without Kilgore, who has refused to share a stage with Potts. A September debate sponsored by the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce also will not include Potts.

Unless things change -- and Potts is desperately trying to see that they do -- Virginians are not going to hear the three major candidates for governor spar with one other in a debate. And unlike in some previous races, it is not clear whether any of the debates will be televised statewide.

Four months before voters go to the polls Nov. 8, the debate over debates is underway.

"The loser is all Virginians, who will not have the opportunity to hear all the bona fide, qualified candidates," said Potts, a Republican state senator from Winchester who turned in 24,011 signatures last month to qualify for the ballot as an independent. "I don't think there's any question but that Virginians of every political persuasion are concerned."

Even as Potts is seeking access to at least one three-way debate, Kaine, the lieutenant governor, has hammered former attorney general Kilgore for refusing to debate more. In speech after speech, Kaine has come close to calling Kilgore a coward for rejecting more than a half-dozen debates.

"No one who wants to be governor of Virginia should be afraid to stand up before voters and say, 'Here's what I think is important,' " Kaine told reporters last week. "It demonstrates a level of fear that should raise serious red flags with Virginia voters."

Potts was even more blunt. "It shows a tremendous lack of courage and character and conviction and confidence," he said of Kilgore's reluctance to debate.

Kilgore has remained steadfast in his position, saying that there will be at least two, and probably three, debates between himself and Kaine before the second Tuesday in November.

"I know voters will expect us to debate," Kilgore told reporters recently. "I'm willing to debate. We have two scheduled, and I'm sure there will be some televised debate in the future."

He added that neither the Virginia Bar Association nor the Fairfax chamber invited Potts. "That's their decision," he said. "I'm showing up to debate Tim Kaine."

History bolsters Kilgore's position. In modern times, governor's races in Virginia have had about three major debates. And the organizations that sponsor debates usually have not allowed minor-party candidates to join.

In 1994, when former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) and former attorney general J. Marshall Coleman (R) ran as independents for the U.S. Senate against two major-party candidates, the Fairfax chamber canceled its debate rather than offer the stage to all four. The entire group did debate at a forum sponsored by the state bar association.

Officials at both organizations defended their decisions to invite only the major-party candidates this year.

"We have no threshold for ascertaining whether or not a third-party candidate is a, pick your word, legitimate, major kind of candidate," said William D. Lecos, the chamber's president and chief executive. "I would not know if we would serve our constituency . . . if we open it to a y'all-come kind of event."

He added that the chamber had already reached an agreement with Kaine and Kilgore that the debate would be between the two of them.

"All I know is the good manners my mother taught me: that when you extend an invitation, you honor your word," Lecos said.

Breck Arrington, executive vice president of the bar association, said his group has a 20-year history of offering invitations primarily to the major-party candidates. And he said the association had already signed a debate agreement with Kaine and Kilgore that didn't include Potts.

Potts "has neither raised much money, nor does he have much standing in any polls of which we are aware," Arrington said. "We made an agreement . . . and intend to stand by it."

The debate is playing out across the Internet on political blogs. Pundits and other observers have been mulling how the outcome might affect the election.

Traditionally, candidates who push for debates are the underdogs. Those who resist them often are uncomfortable with a format less scripted than a campaign speech.

In the 2001 gubernatorial race, for example, Democratic candidate Mark R. Warner was reluctant to engage Republican Mark L. Earley, a former prosecutor and attorney general who was said to be an experienced debater. In the end, the pair debated three times before Warner's election. One debate was rescheduled after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Potts's campaign aides said inclusion in the debates would give their candidate a fighting chance in an otherwise difficult and costly race. And advisers to Potts and Kaine said they are confident that their candidate would do better than Kilgore.

"Everybody knows that Mr. Kilgore is a horrible public speaker," Potts said. "He can't speak without notes. He's very uncomfortable in a setting where you have a long question-and-answer session."

Kilgore campaign aides conceded that their candidate is probably the least comfortable on the debate stage, but they said he is not afraid to mix it up. They said that debating Potts would merely elevate Potts's stature and that voters will have more than enough opportunities to compare Kilgore's record with Kaine's.

"I'm looking forward to July 16th," Kilgore said, referring to the first debate. "I can't wait. I'll be ready willing and able to take your questions."

Staff writer Chris L. Jenkins contributed to this report.