Potts' boiler: Why indie candidate, Sabato faced off

State Senator Russ Potts lost the lawsuit but gained a publicity bounce from suing national pundit and UVA Center for Politics director Larry Sabato.

Sabato almost lost the debate even without Potts' eleventh-hour lawsuit, and he's just happy the October 9 event is over. "Never again," he vows. "I won't go through this again or put the center through this again."

"This" was the only statewide debate for the governor's race, sponsored by the Center for Politics and NBC 12 in Richmond. "The last few weeks have been the Perils of Pauline," says Sabato. "It almost died several times."

And that was before independent candidate Potts sued two business days before the debate for an injunction prohibiting it unless he were allowed on the stage with Republican Jerry Kilgore and Democrat Tim Kaine.

"I earned my way on that stage," says Potts, a four-term legislator. "It's not like I came in on a turnip truck." [For more on Potts, see the Hot Seat, p. 14.]

 At issue was Sabato's requirement that Potts score 15 percent in two statewide polls to be included in the debate– an "artificial" number, according to Potts.

"I thought in the summer he was going to qualify," says Sabato. "He said 15 percent wouldn't be a problem, and he'd be at 22, 23, 24 percent at a minimum. We were planning for a three-way debate and had a format ready."

When recent statewide polls showed Potts at around five percent, he was not invited to the dance.

The reason for the 15 percent threshold boils down to time constraints of the hour-long debate. "If a minor candidate is at five percent, does he deserve one-third of the time?" asks Sabato. "It waters down the debate."

Sabato had advance warning of the October 6 lawsuit. "I was able to hire the best team of lawyers," he says. "Bill Broaddus is a former attorney general. We pulled legal briefs and we were ready."

Potts' lawyer Dan Carrell told Judge Norman Moon in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville October 7 that Potts' exclusion from the debate would cause him "irreparable harm" and "the legitimacy of his candidacy would be adversely affected because of a barrier raised by the state itself"– i.e., the Center for Politics accepts state, federal, and private funds.

Did Judge Moon's ruling against Potts cause irreparable harm to his campaign?

"I think that's true," says Potts, "but the fact of the matter is we got a whole lot of sympathetic people. The Virginian-Pilot did a poll that showed 82 percent said Russ Potts should be in the debate."

And Potts is adamant that the ruling is not the death knell for his candidacy. "We built up dramatic name ID," he says. "I was at 51 percent. That dramatically affects the campaign."

Despite being hauled into court, Sabato understands Potts' strategy. "It's politics," says Sabato. "I don't hold it against him. He needed attention, and this way he got it. Media attention is the oxygen that keeps a campaign breathing."

Potts is not quite so forgiving. He has accused Sabato of having "sold his soul to the Kilgore campaign."

"I wish Russ wouldn't make such intemperate claims," sighs Sabato. "If he could see the email traffic between me and Kilgore..."

In fact, Kilgore objected to the 15 percent threshold as much as Potts because he didn't want Potts in the debate under any circumstance, according to Sabato.

"I fought for 15 percent for three months," he says. "Kilgore didn't want him in. They'd say, 'We want you to rule Potts out.' We almost lost the debate."

That's what has Sabato saying "never again." After the election, he plans to meet with state media associations and set up rules for debates– he thinks there should be more than one– before the next election.

"Candidates have large staffs who are devoted to them," notes Sabato. "They argue about the size of the podium, how much water will be in the glass. We're going to try to get out [with a plan] before there are candidates."

And Potts may end up in the October 9 debate after all. While the sparring between Kaine and Kilgore was going on, he sat sequestered in the studio of WTVR Channel 6 in Richmond. He then answered the questions the other candidates were asked, and the CBS station plans to edit him into the debate.

WTVR aired excerpts the night of the debate. "The switchboard rang off the hook," says Potts. "I'm convinced this election is far from over."

"We're not the Center for Debates," says Center for Politics head Larry Sabato. Negotiating the one statewide gubernatorial debate "totally took us over"– and landed him in court.

State Senator Russ Potts sued to take part in the debate, and believes if he'd prevailed, Jerry Kilgore would have dropped out.