You can argue whether presidential debates have the power to swing an election, but they are a dependable source of images and sound bites that help color voters' perception of the candidates - for good and for bad. It began with with the first televised debate between a tanned and vibrant John F. Kennedy and a peaked, flu-wracked Richard M. Nixon in 1960 and continued through 2008, when John McCain lost his poise and called Barack Obama "that one." Countless quips, gaffes and zingers have occurred in the intervening years. Here are some of the most memorable, in chronological order.
Welcome to television, Mr. Nixon
Pollsters found that people who listened to this debate on the radio thought that Nixon, the vice president, beat Kennedy. But those who followed on television, where Kennedy's youth and poise contrasted with Nixon's age and dourness, sided with Kennedy, who won the election. No single moment of this debate stands out; the entire episode illustrates how Nixon underestimated the power of television. Nixon would later run for president and win, but he refused to debate ever again.
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Ford's foreign policy blunder
President Gerald Ford, who ascended to office after Nixon's resignation, was challenged by former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1976. In this clip from the second of three debates, Ford tells an incredulous Max Frankel that "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." Carter would later say that the debates helped him win the election.
Carter and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan debated only once in 1980, a week before election day, and Reagan showed himself adept at two key debate techniques: affably diffusing an attack and distilling a candidacy down to a single phrase. When Carter criticized Reagan's position on Medicaid, Reagan quipped, "There you go again." And during his closing arguments, Reagan asked voters to ask themselves: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Both lines became classics, and Reagan won by a landslide.
Carter's Amy speech
Reagan's inspiring performance stood in stark contrast to Carter's flatness. That was exposed in his closing arguments, when he finished an argument about nuclear weapons by invoking his daughter, Amy. Some analysts point to this remark as the debate's worst.
Reagan strikes back
Reagan was challenged in 1984 by Walter Mondale, who'd served as vice president under Carter. Reagan maintained a large lead for most of the campaign. But Mondale appeared to gain ground in their first debate, when Reagan, who was, at 73, the oldest sitting president, appeared tired and a little disoriented. In the second debate, Reagan again showed his knack for amiably diffusing criticism by addressing the age issue head-on.
The rape question
The 1988 race between Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and Vice President George H.W. Bush featured two debates, the first of which was largely uneventful. But the second began with journalist Bernard Shaw asking Dukakis if he would support the death penalty for someone who raped and killed his wife. Dukakis, a staunch opponent of capital punishment, answered resolutely that he would not, but the dryness of his response cemented the prevailing image of him as reserved and stiff. Soon after the debate, Bush began to climb in the polls.
Perot's "giant sucking sound"
The series of debates in 1992 featured three candidates: President Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot, whose campaign was fueled by anti-Washington anger. Bush and Clinton spent much of the first debate attacking each other, and voters reacted in polls by declaring Perot the winner. In the second, Perot's straight-talking, humorous delivery reached a crescendo in his opening remarks, when he went on a tirade against the North American Free Trade Agreement, predicting that it would result in a massive loss of jobs to Mexico. The line became an instant hit.
Bush checks his watch
Later in the second debate of 1992, a member of the audience stood to ask the candidates a question about how the national debt had affected them personally. From the back of the stage, Bush glanced at his watch and then botched the question, struggling to explain himself before admitting, "I'm not sure I get it." A few minutes later, Clinton gave an impassioned response, and the debate was as good as won.
Gore tries to intimidate Bush
The last of three debates between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000 was held in a town-hall meeting style, leaving the candidates free to roam the stage while answering questions. The exchanges between Bush and Gore had become increasingly testy, with Gore at times expressing impatience with Bush's answers. That tension came to a head during Bush's attempt to explain how he thought the two men differed. Gore stood up and approached Bush in what seemed to be an effort to intimidate him. But Bush's handling of it gave him the upper hand.
McCain: “that one”
The 2008 race featured three debates between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. In the second, a town-hall style meeting, the candidates largely refrained from attacking each other's character but parried on policy in what was generally considered a boring exchange. Perhaps that is why the Democrats and the media fixated on a slight blunder by McCain as he tried to explain the two men's differences on energy policy. Emphasizing a point, he referred to Obama as "that one," which Obama's campaign tried to exploit as evidence that McCain was out of sorts and irascible. T-shirts and Facebook pages mocking the phrase sprouted up. Pundits argued whether it was that bad of a mistake, but it became the most discussed aspect of the debate, and that wasn't good for McCain.