Since the first presidential debate was televised in 1960, the format has produced numerous exchanges that have become ingrained into America’s political lore. Here are the best of them, the Top 10 Most Memorable Debate Moments:
1. Ford vs. Carter, 1976: The biggest blunder in debate history occurred when President Gerald Ford forgot that the Soviet Union controlled the countries behind the Iron Curtain. When asked about the Soviets’ Cold War influence, Ford said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Ford went on to lose the election to Jimmy Carter, an obscure Georgia governor and peanut farmer.
2. Kennedy vs. Nixon, 1960: The first televised presidential debate was a key factor in determining the victor of the race. John F. Kennedy’s poise on camera and telegenic look contrasted favorably with Richard Nixon’s scowls and his 5-o’clock shadow. The Massachusetts senator went on to squeak out a narrow victory over the vice president.
3. Reagan vs. Carter, 1980: Before their debate, President Carter had been campaigning by portraying his challenger as an extremist. Ronald Reagan was able to deflect such charges merely by shaking his head and saying, “There you go again.” After that, Reagan never looked back and easily defeated the incumbent, beginning eight years in office that changed history.
4. Reagan vs. Bush, et. al, 1980: George H.W. Bush defeated Reagan in the Republican Iowa caucuses and claimed he had “the Big Mo” heading into the New Hampshire primary. At a debate sponsored by the Nashua Telegraph, when editor Jon Breen insisted that the debate be limited to the two front-runners, Reagan forcefully said: “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green,” and invited the other GOP candidates—Senators Bob Dole and Howard Baker, Congressmen Phil Crane and John Anderson, and former Texas Gov. John Connally—to join the debate. Reagan’s action dominated the news coverage and he handily defeated, 50% to 23%, Bush in the primary.
5. Dukakis vs. Bush, 1988: When Michael Dukakis was asked by CNN moderator Bernard Shaw whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife was murdered and raped, the Massachusetts governor’s answer gave no hint of emotion over the deceased Kitty. Dukakis’ response focused on how studies showed that capital punishment was not a deterrent to violent acts, and George H.W. Bush completed a comeback after trailing in the polls to win easily in November, 53% to 46%.
6. Bentsen vs. Quayle, 1988: Boyish-looking vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle set himself up for a stinging comeback when he likened his experience to John F. Kennedy’s, during his debate with Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. The senator, who served in Washington going back to the end of World War II, retorted: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
7. Perry at Republican primary debate, 2011: Texas Gov. Rick Perry had already seen his support slip in the polls after poor performances at several earlier debates. He cemented his reputation as the worst debater ever during a CNBC-sponsored debate with a rambling 53-second attempt to remember which federal agencies he wanted eliminated. After repeated efforts to come up with the name of a third department, Perry finally gave up, saying, “Oops.”
8. Bush vs. Clinton vs. Perot, 1992: When President George H.W. Bush glanced at his watch during his debate with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and businessman Ross Perot, he essentially signaled that the campaign was over. He also stumbled over a poorly worded question about how the national debt affected him personally by saying, “I’m not sure I get it.” Clinton on the other hand gave one of his patented “I feel your pain” responses, saying, “In my state, when people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I’ll know them by name.”
9. Stockdale vs. Quayle vs. Gore, 1992: Ross Perot’s Quixotic third-party bid included the selection of retired Adm. James Stockdale as his running mate. The former prisoner of war in Vietnam was decidedly inexperienced in the political world. He shocked viewers in his opening remarks when he said, “Who am I? Why am I here?” and went on to give confused and rambling answers to the questions.
10. Gore vs. Bush, 2000: Vice President Al Gore turned in the goofiest debate performance in presidential history with his loud sighing and rolling his eyes while repeating “Dingle-Norwood” during his debate with Texas Gov. George W. Bush. At one point he crossed the stage to stand nose to nose with his opponent. Luckily for the nation, the Supreme Court spared us from four years of such nonsense.
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