Chairman responds to pullout from debate

WASHINGTON — Nevada Democrats canceled a planned debate co-sponsored by Fox News Channel after comments by topper Roger Ailes about Sen. Barack Obama angered Democratic officials.

Former Sen. John Edwards had already pulled out of the debate, citing Fox News’ involvement, but now the debate itself has been called off after Ailes joked during a speech Thursday of the similarity between Barack Obama’s name and Osama bin Laden.

“Comments made last night by Fox News president Roger Ailes in reference to one of our presidential candidates went too far. We cannot, as good Democrats, put our party in a position to defend such comments,” state Democratic Party chairman Tom Collins and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid wrote in a letter sent Friday to Fox News.

In a speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation Dinner in Washington, D.C., and carried on C-SPAN, Ailes made what Fox News spokeswoman Irena Briganti said was intended to be a lighthearted jab at President George Bush, who might have trouble telling the difference between Obama and bin Laden.

“And it is true that Barack Obama is on the move. I don’t know if it’s true that President Bush called Musharraf and said, ‘Why can’t we catch this guy?’ ” Ailes said.

Ailes also criticized Edwards for pulling out of the debate, saying any politician who is “afraid of journalists” may not be qualified to hold the nation’s highest office.

The skirmish threatens to open a wider war between Fox News and the Democrats, fueled by MoveOn.org, which launched a campaign to stop the debate, circulating an online petition and calling Fox News a “mouthpiece for the Republican party.”

“We hope this sets a precedent for all Democrats, that Fox should be treated as a right-wing misinformation network, not legitimized as a neutral source of news,” Eli Pariser, exec director of MoveOn.org, said in a statement.

Fox News attributed the decisions of both Edwards and the Nevada Democrats as attempts to appease the liberal wing of the Democratic party.

“News organizations will want to think twice before getting involved in the Nevada Democratic Caucus, which appears to be controlled by radical fringe out-of-state interest groups, not the Nevada Democratic Party,” responded Fox News veep David Rhodes. “In the past, MoveOn.org has said they ‘own’ the Democratic party. While most Democrats don’t agree with that, it’s clearly the case in Nevada.”

Both Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pulled out of the scheduled debate before the Nevada Democratic Party finally pulled the plug late Friday. Some strategists saw Edwards’ decision to back out as a testament to the growing power of online activists and bloggers, who propelled Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004.

“Just like you want to court labor or the African-American vote, these candidates are also actively competing for the blogger-activist vote,” said Democratic strategist Jenny Backus. “That was a move that was definitely designed to appeal to that segment of the Democratic base.”

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