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MANCHESTER, N.H. — ABC News — and its president, David Westin — fended off a last-minute challenge from Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who tried to get a state judge to force the network to include him in Saturday night’s debate.
Under the ground rules of ABC News/WMUR’s dual debates ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, only candidates who either finished in the top four in Iowa or polled 5% or more support would be included. That gave an entrance pass to U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson but barred Kucinich and another marginal candidate, former Sen. Mike Gravel as well as
GOP candidate Duncan Hunter. The change would make for better conversation, the network said.
Kucinich didn’t take the news lying down, threatening to bring the FCC into the fray and on Saturday evening persuaded a New Hampshire judge to hear his case against ABC News. He wasn’t seeking to stop the debate but instead to force ABC News to allow him to participate. Only Richardson, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards participated in the Democratic debate, which began around 8 p.m. ET.
Word of the legal action came to the ABC News temporary offices at St. Anselm College, where the debate was held, about 20 minutes before the Republican event was supposed to start. Word came in the form of a frantic call from the WMUR-TV newsroom, which couldn’t get hold of its own legal counsel to battle it. The Hearst Argyle-owned TV station and ABC affiliate co-sponsored the debate with ABC News.
“The (WMUR) news director came into the workspace and said, ‘We’ve got a problem,’ ” recalled Westin late Saturday after the debate. Westin was trained as a lawyer but hasn’t practiced in years. He offered to call the judge at a local police station, where Kucinich’s lawyer had filed suit, and try to straighten it out. He made sure to tell the judge that he had no legal standing as a lawyer but could speak as ABC News president, which the judge accepted.
Kucinich’s lawyer had argued at the impromptu hearing that to keep Kucinich away from the debate violated FCC rules about fair and open coverage. Westin denied the claim and said that the network had, on several occasions, given Kucinich his due. And he told the judge that Kucinich’s camp had known about the restrictions since Dec. 17.
“It’s pretty likely that they could have done this three weeks ago,” Westin said. Representatives for Kucinich couldn’t be reached for comment late Saturday.
The judge’s decision was short and sweet and delivered minutes before the GOP debate began, though about two hours before the Democrats took the stage. Westin, who received the news over the phone, put his thumb up and received a cheer from the ABC News employees crashing to get the debate on the air.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter afterward, Westin said that the debates were never in jeopardy and it wasn’t as if the network would have been forced to televise something else.
“It was frivolous,” Westin said.
Meanwhile, Paul may have made the ABC News cut but as of late Saturday he wasn’t going to appear on a Fox News Channel roundtable scheduled Sunday night.
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