WASHINGTON - Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan staged a minidebate of their own Sunday and groused about being shut out of Tuesday's faceoff between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
''What are they afraid of?'' asked Buchanan, the Reform Party nominee. Green Party candidate Nader said he'll be in Boston for the Bush-Gore event and joked: ''Maybe I'll crawl up on the stage there.''
The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, organizer of three 90-minute debates this month between the Republican Bush and Democrat Gore, said last week that Buchanan and Nader had failed to meet its criteria for participation Tuesday.
Candidates' names must appear on enough state ballots to have a chance of winning a majority of Electoral College votes, and they must average 15 percent support in five major national polls. For weeks, Nader and Buchanan have been at 3 percent or below in the polls, while Gore and Bush have been at 40 percent or above.
As an alternative, Nader and Buchanan appeared on NBC's ''Meet the Press,'' where they vehemently challenged the commission decision.
Gore and Bush, meanwhile, continued studying for the debate, with Gore hunkered down in Sarasota, Fla., where he prepared for his 1996 vice presidential debate, and Bush at his ranch outside Waco, Texas. Bush planned to campaign Monday in West Virginia before heading to Boston.
The vice presidential candidates, Joseph Lieberman and Dick Cheney, also spent Sunday off the campaign trail in preparation for their only debate Thursday night in Danville, Ky.
Nader said the debate commission's decision means Republicans and Democrats ''have a monopoly on the debate, and the networks have allowed them to have a monopoly.''
He planned a rally in Boston later Sunday to dramatize his demand to be admitted to the debate.
Buchanan, whose Reform Party participated in the 1992 debates because of the early popularity of party founder Ross Perot's ideas, said the recognized parties are Republican, Democratic and Reform. Buchanan received $12.6 million in federal campaign funds this year based on Perot's 8 percent showing in the 1996 election.
''The other two parties are engaged in a conspiracy basically to deny me access to the debate that's going to decide the election and the presidency ..., and the American people are being denied ... the right to see and hear a candidate they're paying for,'' Buchanan said. ''That's the injustice.''
''The idea that these two parties have some automatic lock on the White House ... is false,'' he said. ''What are those parties afraid of if they won't let Ralph and me in the debate argue our point of view?''
Most Americans support his conservative ideas on foreign affairs, trade, the military and the Supreme Court, Buchanan averred. But ''even if they don't, we at least should be able to hear those arguments. You're not going to be able to hear them Tuesday night,'' he said.