NEW YORK — ABC News is eliminating Republican presidential candidate Duncan Hunter and Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel from its prime-time presidential debates Saturday night because they did not meet benchmarks for their support.
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The Republican debate three days before the New Hampshire primary will include Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. It starts at 7 p.m. EDT.
Kucinich filed a complaint with the the Federal Communications Commission on Friday, arguing that ABC is violating equal-time provisions by keeping him out of the debate and noting that ABC's parent Walt Disney Co. had contributed to campaigns involving the four Democrats who were invited.
"ABC should not be the first primary," the Ohio congressman said in papers filed at the FCC.
ABC said the candidates left out of the debates failed to meet benchmarks for their support that were outlined to each campaign prior to the Iowa caucus. Kucinich did not complain about these rules ahead of time, said spokeswoman Cathie Levine, who had no further comment since she hasn't seen the FCC filing.
ABC said it hoped to encourage more conversation and interaction among the candidates during the debates, which will both be moderated by Charles Gibson. The stakes are high as candidates take the stage three days before the New Hampshire primary.
The network set up benchmarks to narrow the field. Candidates had to meet at least one of three criteria: place first through fourth in Iowa, poll 5 percent or higher in one of the last four major New Hampshire surveys, or poll 5 percent or higher in one of the last four major national surveys.
"In previous debates where the stage was more crowded you had to make sure all of the candidates got equal time," said David Chalian, ABC News political director. "Here you will have more time to go in depth on the issues."
Each debate will be divided into two parts. During the first 45 minutes, Gibson will select three prominent issues to promote a dialogue. The candidates will be seated and encouraged to talk to each other, and not just to the cameras, Gibson said.
There won't be any buzzers or lights on the stage to mark time limits for talking, putting the pressure on Gibson to limit filibusters and promote fairness.
The second half of the debate will be a more traditional format, with Gibson and WMUR-TV political director Scott Spradling asking questions on a variety of topics. Candidates will be asked to keep their answers to a minute, Chalian said.
Fox News Channel is sponsoring a debate in its mobile studio Sunday that excludes Paul and Hunter. Huckabee, Giuliani, Romney, Thompson and McCain have been invited.
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