Robert F. Kennedy Jr. didn't make the debate stage. He faces hurdles to stay relevant

PHOENIX (AP) — Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., won’t be with his better-known rivals, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, when they debate Thursday in Atlanta.

And aside from a livestreamed response to the debate, he also has nothing on his public schedule for the coming weeks. Nor does his running mate, philanthropist Nicole Shanahan.

After a busy spring hopscotching the country for a mix of political rallies, fundraisers and nontraditional campaign events, Kennedy appears to be taking a breather.

Kennedy’s absence from the debate stage and the campaign trail carries risk for his insurgent quest to shake up the Republican and Democratic dominance of the U.S. political system. He lacks the money for a firehose of television commercials, and he must spend much of the money he does have to secure ballot access. Public appearances are a low-cost way to fire up supporters and drive media coverage he needs to stay relevant.

Kennedy himself says he can’t win unless voters know he’s running and believe he can defeat Biden and Trump. That problem will become increasingly acute as the debate, followed by the major party conventions in July and August, push more voters to tune into the race.

Still, Kennedy has maintained a steady stream of social media posts and he continues to sit for interviews, most recently with talk show host Dr. Phil.

“Mr. Kennedy has a full schedule for July with many public events, mostly on the East Coast and including one big rally,” said Stefanie Spear, a Kennedy campaign spokesperson. “We will start announcing the events next week.”

For Thursday’s debate on CNN, the network invited candidates who showed strength in four reliable polls and ballot access in enough states to win the presidency. Kennedy fell short on both requirements.

He’s cried foul about the rules, accusing CNN of colluding with Biden and Trump in a complaint to the Federal Election Commission and threatening to sue.

Sujat Desai, a 20-year-old student from Pleasanton, California who supports Kennedy, said Kennedy’s absence from the debate is a major hurdle for him to overcome.

“I don’t think there’s any way to get awareness if you’re not on the debate stage,” Desai said. “I think it’s a pretty lethal blow not to be in this debate, and it would be detrimental not to be in the next.”

Still, Desai said he won’t be dissuaded from voting for Kennedy even if he appears to be a longshot come November.

“I think this is probably the strongest I’ve seen an independent candidate in a while, so I’ll give him that,” Desai said. “I think he’s definitely doing well. His policies are strong enough to win, I just don’t know if there’s awareness.”

Kennedy plans to respond in real time to the same questions posed to Biden and Trump in a livestream.

Independent and third-party candidates like Kennedy face supremely long odds, but Kennedy’s campaign has spooked partisans on both sides who fear he will tip the election against them. Biden supporters worry his famous Democratic name and his history of environmental advocacy will sway voters from the left. Trump supporters worry his idiosyncratic views, particularly his questioning of the scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective, will appeal to people who might otherwise vote for Trump.

Christy Jones, 54, a holistic health and mindfulness coach from Glendora, California, worries people won’t know Kennedy is running without him standing next to Biden and Trump at the debate. But she said he’s still all over her social media feeds and she’s confident he’s making himself visible.

“I do feel like he could still win if people choose to be courageous,” she said. “If all the people that actually want change voted for him he would be in. People are asking for change.”

Until recently, Kennedy’s website promoted a variety of events weeks or more in advance, including public rallies and private fundraisers. He held comedy nights with prominent comedians in Michigan and Tennessee.

But since he went to the June 15 premiere of a film on combatting addiction, Kennedy has been dark, though he continues to promote in-person and virtual organizing events for his supporters.

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