President Obama and Mitt Romney are locked in intense final preparations for Wednesday's presidential debate in Denver, the first of three scheduled face-offs in the final five weeks of the campaign. Romney is falling behind in many polls — especially in swing states like Ohio and Florida, which are expected to decide the November election — and many political strategists say his first televised showdown with Obama is one of his last big chances to regain momentum. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) says that Romney "hasn't had a good two weeks," but that his fellow Republican will turn the race "upside down" in Colorado. And indeed, history shows that presidential (and vice presidential) debates can be game-changers — for better or worse. Here, 11 of the most indelible debate exchanges ever:
1. Kennedy vs. Nixon (1960)
The first televised presidential debate ever proved that these exchanges can turn the tide in a close election. In 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged Vice President Richard Nixon to a televised debate. Nixon had just gotten out of the hospital. With pancake makeup covering his five o'clock shadow, the Republican sweated under the hot lights and "looked shifty and pale," says Lois Romano at Politico. Kennedy, who had been touring California in open motorcades, looked like a "bronze warrior." Radio listeners gave the night to Nixon, but the 70 million watching on TV said Kennedy won, hands down. They went into the night tied, but Kennedy promptly surged into the lead.
2. Ford vs. Carter (1976)
After 1960, "Nixon never debated again — nor did Lyndon Johnson, who had preceded him to the White House," says CBS News. "So there were no debates in 1964, 1968, or 1972." But in 1976, President Gerald Ford consented to square off against his challenger, Jimmy Carter, because the Democrat was leading him by double digits in the polls. The move backfired, though, when Ford said: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." It was the height of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain stretched across Europe. Moderator Max Frankel of The New York Times looked shocked, saying, "I'm sorry, what?"
3. Carter vs. Reagan (1980)
When Carter was running for re-election, he said he wanted a national health insurance program, but that his opponent, Ronald Reagan, typically opposed the idea. That opened the door for Reagan to deliver one of his most memorable lines: "There you go again," said a smiling Reagan. That quip, says John Harwood at The New York Times, "reassured Americans that he was not the extremist" Carter was warning about. And Reagan got such a boost in the polls that he used the line again four years later against Walter Mondale.
4. Reagan vs. Mondale (1984)
When Reagan ran for re-election, he was 73, the oldest president ever, and Democrats tried to make his age an issue. His "shaky" performance in the first debate against challenger Walter Mondale didn't help, says Romano at Politico. But Reagan turned the tables when he was asked in the campaign's final debate whether his age was an issue, and Reagan deadpanned: "I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." Everyone, even Mondale, burst out laughing.
5. Bush vs. Dukakis (1988)
Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was a long-time opponent of the death penalty when he went up against Vice President George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. Still, his response to a "startling question from CNN's Bernard Shaw" tripped up his campaign, says M.J. Stephey at TIME. Shaw asked whether Dukakis thought he might support the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife, Kitty. "No, I don't," Dukakis said without much emotion. He explained that he didn't think capital punishment deterred crime, and years later still thought he had given a solid answer. Still, it was clear he "didn't exactly charm his way into voters' hearts" with his "dispassionate and dismissive" response.
6. Bentsen vs. Quayle (1988)
Vice-presidential debates can produce indelible moments, too. In 1988, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen "delivered one of the best putdowns in political debate history," says Sophie Quinton at National Journal. His GOP rival and fellow Sen. Dan Quayle, deflecting criticism that he was young and unprepared, said he had "as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." Bentsen, by then a Washington fixture, replied: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy." The audience erupted in applause, and Quayle only seemed to cement his defeat when he said: "That was really uncalled for, senator."
7. Bush vs. Clinton vs. Perot (1992)
President George H.W. Bush didn't help put to rest accusations that he was "out of touch" when he looked at his watch during a 1992 debate, while a woman was asking him, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot how the national debt and the economic problems it caused had affected them, personally, says Ken Rudin at NPR. Bush said he wasn't sure he understood the question, and looked like he was "just anxious for the whole thing to be over." Clinton then stepped up and, with one of his classic "I feel your pain" responses, set himself up as the champion of average Americans, saying, "in my state, when people lose their jobs there's a good chance I'll know them by their names."
8. Stockdale vs. Quayle vs. Gore (1992)
Retired vice admiral James Stockdale, a Vietnam war hero, came from out of nowhere, politically speaking, to be independent candidate Ross Perot's running mate. He wasn't a politician, and essentially joined the ticket as a personal favor to Perot, says Quinton at the National Journal. Stockdale, an academic, tried to reach into his philosophy background to deliver a memorable opening line. "Who am I? Why am I here?" The "oddball opening line" got laughs — but partly because many of the viewers were curious themselves what the Medal of Honor winner was doing on the debate stage.
9. Bush II v. Gore (2000)
Vice President Al Gore had a five-percentage point lead going into his first debate with George W. Bush in 2000, a month before election day. He also had a reputation as a strong debater. But Gore made several factual misstatements, and sighed audibly during several of Bush's responses. He made matters worse in an odd moment when he walked over next to Bush as the GOP candidate was speaking. Bush gave him a cordial nod, making Gore look rather foolish. Gore strategist Tad Devine tells The New York Times that the Bush campaign won the debate afterward in the spin room by arguing that Gore was condescending. "Their spin was, 'He lied and he sighed,'" Devine says, "and that took hold."
10. Clinton vs. Obama (2008)
One of the most memorable debate battles came during the Democratic primaries, when Hillary Clinton squared off against Barack Obama (with John Edwards standing by all but forgotten). A simmering feud between Clinton and Obama "erupted into charges of distortion and exaggeration," says The Associated Press, "with Clinton accusing him of representing a Chicago slumlord and Obama countering that she was a corporate lawyer for anti-union Walmart." For sheer pyrotechnics, it was one for the history books.
11. Perry vs. himself (2011)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the GOP primaries last year as an instant frontrunner. Almost as quickly, he stumbled out of contention. The debate where he "made the word 'oops' his calling card" did him in, says the Texas Tribune's Jay Root in The New York Times. Perry promised to cut waste from the federal government, declaring that he would close three federal agencies... but he could only name two of them. "I would do away with the Education, the, uh, Commerce, and, let's see," Perry said, in the campaign's most agonizing 53 seconds. "I can't. The third one I can't. Sorry. Oops."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Libertarianism's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Why the Chinese military is only a paper dragon
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- Christian conservatives have a terrifying new bogeyman: The Christian leftist
- What the Romney boomlet says about the establishment GOP's feeble 2016 field
- 9 dog park rules you should never, ever break
- 10 innovative furniture designs that brilliantly save you space
Subscribe to the Week