As with any campaign for governor, the debate over debates has reached a fever pitch. Both Ken Cuccinelli (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D) are staking their ground by pumping up and lowering expectations all with the hope of scoring big points with voters.
But lost in the back in forth between the two major party candidates is the third man who will be on the ballot in November, Robert Sarvis the nominee of the Libertarian party.
Sarvis is not a joke candidate- or a side show, which could be used to describe the still beating but on life support campaign of White House Party crasher Tareq Salahi. Salahi won't appear on the ballot and is now mounting a write-in campaign.
Sarvis has accomplished, with far fewer resources, what only two other people who wish to be Governor of Virginia have accomplished. He has collected 10,000 signatures, at least 400 from each congressional district, making him a certified candidate for the fall election. There will only be three names to choose from in November and Sarvis's will be one of them.
That distinction alone is enough in the candidate's mind to get him a seat at the debate table.
"I think it is important for Virginians to see all the choices they have," Sarvis told me during a lengthy interview a few weeks ago. "I am going to be on the ballot. I had to meet a very tough burden to get on the ballot and I am presenting a message that should resonate with a lot of Virginians."
But despite the challenge of getting on the ballot, that accomplishment alone is not nearly enough to garner an invite from most of the major debate hosts.
The first debate of the year will be this Saturday at the Homestead hosted by the Virginia Bar Association. Sarvis was not invited. In fact the VBA's criteria for selecting debate participants specifically states that gaining access to the ballot is not the deciding factor.
The main criteria according to the VBA's debate rules is a subjective judgement that the candidate "must have a reasonable chance of being elected."
The same goes for the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce/NBC Washington Debate scheduled for September 25th. It is a debate that will air on NBC12. The Fairfax Chamber has a long tradition of holding debates and for the most part has kept the participants in state and local elections to the main party candidates.
Jim Corcoran, the Chamber's President believes it is a system that works.
"For 25 years we have invited the nominees of the major parties," he said. "We plan to continue that tradition of inviting the major candidates going forward." Both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe have agreed to participate in the Fairfax Chamber debate.
Even the AARP/League of Women Voters debate, which Cuccinelli turned down an invite to because of his perceived partisan bent of the hosting organizations, has no plan to include the third party candidate.
They have a very specific high bar to cross for eligibility, and at this point Sarvis has not come close to reaching that threshold. They describe those who qualify as "significant candidates".
"Significant candidates are those who have made a public announcement of the intention to run; have a staffed campaign headquarters office; have issued position papers; have made campaign appearances; and, within 30 days of the event, have registered a minimum of 15% voter support in at least one statistically significant poll conducted by news media or other independent organization," said Ginger Thompson, a spokesperson for the AARP.
Sarvis has yet to garner 15% in any poll, but in the first public poll that made him a part of the sample he made an impact. An impact with virtually no press coverage and no name recognition.
The left leaning Public Policy Polling gives Sarvis 7% of the vote right now in Virginia. More than halfway to the 15% threshold and a higher number than the current split in the poll between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli. (McAuliffe leads 41%-37%)
7% is certainly not enough to win, but in terms of third party candidates in Virginia a 7% finish would be historic. As Norm Leahy points out in Bearing Drift, the last Libertarian candidate to make it on the ballot finished with only .77% of the vote. That happened in 2001.
Meanwhile the two major candidates are split on Sarvis joining them to debate.
"It'll be up to each individual debate host to make decisions but Terry would not be opposed to his inclusion," said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin.
Cuccinelli's team is only interested in a head-to-head match up with McAuliffe.
"Terry McAuliffe will do absolutely anything to avoid debating Ken Cuccinelli one on one," said Cuccineli spokesperson Anna Nix
(To be clear McAuliffe's team has not pushed to include Sarvis, they have just said they are not opposed to his inclusion.)
At this point the only debate Sarvis has been invited to is one suggested by Newschannel 8 host Bruce DePuyt in Washington, D.C.. DePuyt hasn't set a date for the forum which would be held on his NewsTalk program. He also hasn't gotten firm committments from the two major party candidates.
But while this early surge by Sarvis is interesting, it is not earth shattering and is probably not indicative of some tectonic shift in Virginia politics. His chances of winning are still minimal, despite his insistence that he is in the race to become the next Governor.
"I think it is possible," Sarvis said. "We are running to win and we are running to provide Virginia with leadership."
The question is, does his inclusion in the debates, and his stance on the issues (which would be markedly different from the two major party candidates), offer an interesting and thoughtful dialogue to the race? Or would he just serve as a distraction to the core goal of picking between the two major party candidates?
At this point, all of the debate organizers have decided the latter.
An extended clip from my interview with Robert Sarvis can be found below: