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10 famous political debate moments

September 26, 2016 by NCC Staff


A good point or a bad moment can make or break a campaign in a presidential debate.

Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford at 1976 debate in Philadelphia

While there were political debates in the 19th Century, presidential general election and primary debates are a 20th Century phenomenon. In 1948, Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen took part in a radio debate before the Oregon primary. Until the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, just three other debates with presidential candidates, all in primaries, had taken place.

Here’s a look back at some big debate moments on the eve of Monday's presidential nominee debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

1. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas set the debate gold standard. In 1858, the two legendary speakers met seven times in Illinois during a Senate contest. Each had to make a one-hour opening statement followed by a 90-minute rebuttal – outside and without microphones! Lincoln and Douglas argued over Lincoln's claims that a "house divided" couldn't stand on its own.

2. The FDR debate that never happened. In 1940, Republican Wendell Willkie challenged incumbent Franklin Roosevelt to a series of debates. FDR declined, perhaps knowing that Willkie bested future Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in a 1938 radio debate. Given Roosevelt’s ability as a public speaker, this could have been interesting!

3. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon made debates relevant. In 1960, the Kennedy-Nixon debates riveted the nation and established television an important national political tool. In the first debate, a fresh-looking Kennedy stood in contrast to Nixon, who had a 5 o’clock shadow and was coming off an illness. Radio listeners though Nixon was the better debater.

4. Ford’s mistake proved debates were still risky. Nominated presidential candidates avoided debates for 16 years after the Kennedy-Nixon debates (primary debates still took place). Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter resumed the practice in 1976, with Ford making a key mistake in stating the Poland and Eastern Europe weren't under the Soviet Union’s influence.

5. Ronald Reagan: debate master. The former actor and California governor usually excelled on the debate platform. In 1980, he swung around a contentious New Hampshire primary debate by reminding debate organizers that he had “paid for that microphone.” Reagan later did well in debates against Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

6. Mondale dominates Gary Hart in a primary debate. Former Vice President Mondale got in a few telling shots against Hart in a Georgia primary debate in 184 where he attacked a lack of details in Hart’s proposals. “When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad, ‘Where’s the beef?’ Mondale said as he launched a potent debate zinger that slowed Hart’s campaign momentum.

7. Bush and Clinton tackle the debt question. In a critical moment in the second 1992 presidential debate, President George H.W. Bush is seen checking his watch when asked a question about the national debt, while candidate Bill Clinton engages in a personal conversation with an audience member that showcased his political skills.

8. Al Gore sighs and sighs. Vice President Gore gets “gored” in the press after he repeatedly sighs and rolls his eyes in his first debate with George W. Bush. Polling data after the debate showed that Gore’s antics helped Bush in a critical campaign moment.

9. Lloyd Bentsen schools Dan Quayle. In a 1988 Vice Presidential campaign debate, Bentsen knew Quayle would make comparisons between himself and John F. Kennedy when asked about his age. Bentsen delivered one of the great zingers in political history. "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy,” Bensten said to loud applause from the audience.

10. Rick Perry and the “Oops” moment. In a 2011 GOP Primary debate, the Texas Governor forgets the answer to a question he had started about eliminating three federal departments. After Ron Paul offers to help, Perry admits he can’t remember the third agency. The gaffe effectively ended the Perry campaign.

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