RFK Jr faces midnight deadline to qualify for CNN presidential debate

FILE PHOTO: Robert F. Kennedy addresses the Libertarian Party’s national convention in Washington

By Stephanie Kelly

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Time is running out for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to qualify for 2024's first U.S. presidential debate, with the independent candidate counting on a longshot bid with a U.S. elections agency to put him on the stage.

CNN, host of the June 27 debate, says only President Joe Biden and Republican rival Donald Trump have met its conditions for taking part: appear on enough state ballots to potentially win the presidency and also receive at least 15% in four separate national polls.

Kennedy has received at least 15% in only three accepted polls to date and has qualified for the ballot in six states, making it impossible for him to win the presidency, said CNN, a division of Warner Bros Discovery.

Kennedy's campaign says he is on the ballot in nine states and has collected enough signatures to be on the ballot in 14 others, making it possible for him to win the election.

Kennedy, an environmental lawyer who has spread misinformation on vaccines, is drawing supporters from both sides of the political divide. It is not yet clear whether he would pull more votes away from Biden or from Trump.

The deadline for candidates to qualify for the debate is 12 a.m. ET (0400 GMT) on Thursday.

Kennedy has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging CNN's debate is unfair and amounts to a prohibited campaign contribution to Biden and Trump.

Kennedy has said Biden and Trump "are trying to exclude me from their debate because they are afraid I would win."

The Kennedy campaign asked that the FEC take action by Thursday and keep CNN, Biden and Trump from holding the June 27 debate unless they make changes.

The FEC declined to comment. The agency recently struggled to rule on artificial intelligence in the 2024 campaign, and has not ruled on related issues in recent elections, experts say.

"The mere application for ballot access does not guarantee that he (Kennedy) will appear on the ballot in any state," a CNN spokesperson said. "In addition, RFK Jr. does not currently meet our polling criteria, which, like the other objective criteria, were set before issuing invitations to the debate."

This election year presents a nearly unprecedented situation. Not since 1960 ushered in the era of televised presidential debates have news organizations been fully in control of the terms and parameters of two debates between the candidates. ABC, a unit of Walt Disney, is set to host a September debate.

Most recently, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has sponsored debates.

Biden and Trump, as the expected nominees of the Democratic and Republican political parties, respectively, qualify because most states automatically allow them ballot access without petitioning, a CNN spokesperson said.

Derek Muller, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, said having an independent candidate like Kennedy on stage may make for a more substantive debate.

"If you're saying that we're looking for those candidates that have serious support to weigh major issues, and dealing with two of the least popular major presidential candidates of all time, then the debate could definitely benefit from having a third party on the stage. It's all dependent on your point of view," Muller said.

Some 41% of registered voters in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said they would vote for Trump if the election were held today, while 39% picked Biden.

Ten percent of respondents would pick Kennedy were he on the ballot with Trump and Biden, the poll showed.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly; Editing by Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)