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Net forum not acceptable to Nader camp

Locked out of the televised presidential debates, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader appears to be staging a lone boycott of the only other game in town: the Internet.

Locked out of the televised presidential debates, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader appears to be staging a lone boycott of the only other game in town: the Internet.

As George W. Bush and Al Gore prepare for tonight's third and final televised match-up, supporters of a wider debate forum that would include fringe party candidates such as Nader and Pat Buchanan are taking to the Net in protest.

At the same time, at least one organization has created an online alternative to the TV soapbox, staging cyberdebates and soliciting questions from voters to all of the candidates.

Nader, however, is the only candidate absent from this new forum.

"Responding to debate questions online is not the same as a face-to-face sit-down with Al Gore and George Bush," said Stacy Malkan, assistant press secretary for the Nader campaign. "It's not the most conducive to broad-based back-and-forth discussion."

A grassroots effort to get more candidates exposure on television has gained momentum online in recent weeks. The group behind DebateThis.org, for example, has spearheaded protests and fired up university student organizations to get behind the issue.

The Nader campaign has reaped the benefits of the Net. Through his official Web site, Votenader.com, Nader has raised about $500,000 in donations and attracted about 10,000 volunteers. The response has been fast and furious, so much so that it overwhelmed campaign workers, said Ross Mikarini, Nader's California campaign director.

"We have had to change our infrastructure to handle all the requests for volunteers," Mikarini said.

Despite this good fortune, Nader does not seem to view the Net as a viable venue for expressing his political views. He has turned down offers to participate in cyberdebates hosted by Web White & Blue and sponsored by the Markle Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization.

The cyberdebate posts a question posed by a reader for candidates to answer. Tuesday's question has to do with the Napster copyright case, seeking a position on file sharing and protection of intellectual property online.

In written responses, Democratic candidate Gore and Republican candidate Bush both took the middle road, saying they support the rights of artists online while at the same time favoring new technologies. Reform Party candidate Buchanan hasn't yet posted a reply. Alongside a picture of Nader are the words "not yet participating."

The cyberdebate is perhaps the largest national exposure a candidate will get aside from television. The questions and responses are published on 17 major media Web sites--including America Online, Yahoo, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Fox--and reach about 85 percent of the Internet community, said Jonah Seiger, manager of the Web White & Blue site.

"The only correspondence we got from the Nader campaign was an email from the press secretary saying, 'It doesn't appear we'll be able to participate in the project,'" Seiger said.

In the meantime, Washington University students in St. Louis, Mo., are gearing up to protest Tuesday night's debate held on campus. Through community site eGroups, the students are rallying support for their cause, and through an email campaign, they are gathering more volunteers, said Sara Skrabalak, a 20-year-old chemistry student.

The debates are sponsored by the Commission on Political Debates and include only the two party candidates that are most likely to win.

This final televised debate could give Bush or Gore the edge they need to pull ahead and win the election.

The latest Reuters/MSNBC poll showed Bush narrowly ahead by 44 percent to 43 percent. The margin of 1 percentage point was well within the statistical margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Tuesday's 90-minute debate at Washington University takes the form of a "town hall meeting," with the candidates fielding questions from a citizen audience. It will be televised at 6 p.m. PT.