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Facebook co-sponsors N.H. debate, not without controversy

Social-networking site is co-sponsoring a Republican presidential debate, followed by a Democratic one, this week--but at least five candidates will likely be excluded.

NASHUA, N.H.--First it was Google co-sponsoring two YouTube presidential debates with CNN. And now it's Facebook co-sponsoring debates Saturday here in New Hampshire.

But while the YouTube/CNN debates were relatively inclusive, this week's Facebook/WMUR/ABC debates will be relatively exclusive. The reason for that is that a slew of candidates likely will be barred from participating, including Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Chris Dodd, former Sen. Mike Gravel, Rep. Duncan Hunter, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

As the primary season continues, some winnowing of the field is inevitable, of course. Rep. Tom Tancredo, former Gov. Tom Vilsack, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, and, alas, Stephen Colbert have already dropped out voluntarily.

But the Facebook/WMUR/ABC debates are drawing fire because those candidates will likely be excluded even before the nation's first primary takes place here on January 8. (The Iowa caucuses are this evening, starting at 6:30 p.m. local time for the Democrats and half an hour later for the Republicans.)

"It is a perversion of the New Hampshire primary process to have serious, if long-shot, contenders excluded from this possibly significant TV exposure. All New Hampshire citizens should be insulted and affronted by it," wrote Joseph McQuaid, publisher of New Hampshire's Union Leader, in a front-page editorial on Thursday. The paper has endorsed Sen. John McCain.

The reason that I hedged a few paragraphs above by saying some candidates "likely" will be excluded is that the final lineup hasn't been set yet. Candidates hoping to be included will need to accomplish any one of three tasks: (a) place in the top four positions in the Iowa caucuses, (b) obtain 5 percent or higher in recent national polls, or (c) obtain 5 percent or higher in recent state polls.

The final lineup will be determined Friday morning. Saturday's debates will take place at Saint Anselm College with the Republicans debating first, followed by the Democrats. On a related note, Rep. Ron Paul--the only anti-war Republican--has been excluded from a follow-up Fox News debate on Sunday.

It's too early to know how these exclusions will play out, but it's fair to say that New Hampshire residents guard their traditional political role zealously and don't like companies (or anyone else) to limit their choices. While media organizations that have sponsored debates for decades are used to weathering this type of storm, Silicon Valley-based companies like Facebook may be about to realize that injecting themselves into politics can have costs as well as benefits.