Top moments in US presidential debates

2012-10-01 15:34
Then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama shakes hands with then-Republican presidental nominee Senator John McCain at the end of the third presidential debate in October 2008. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

Then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama shakes hands with then-Republican presidental nominee Senator John McCain at the end of the third presidential debate in October 2008. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

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Washington - Televised debates between presidential hopefuls have long been quintessential parts of the White House race, and can often swing the ballot in a candidate's favour.

As Americans prepare to tune in on Wednesday to the first debate of the 2012 campaign, here are some of the top moments captured on the cameras since the first televised debate more than half a century ago.

1960

Democrat John Kennedy vs Republican Richard Nixon

- Historians believe this very first televised debate on 26 September 1960 seen by 66 million viewers helped clinch the presidency for the young Kennedy.

Nixon, pale and badly shaven, had only been out of hospital for two weeks after being treated for a knee injury. He had lost weight due to flu, and he refused to wear make-up under the studio lights.

Kennedy, tanned after campaigning in California, meanwhile looked rested and relaxed. He wore a dark suit, which stood out from the background, unlike Nixon's gray jacket. And when Kennedy answered the questions he looked directly into the camera and not at the journalist, like Nixon.

Result: Kennedy was elected. He was assassinated in 1963.

1976

Democrat Jimmy Carter vs Republican Gerald Ford

- The 23 September debate was the first held after the 1960 debut.

Scarred by that early experience, Nixon refused to take part in any televised debate in 1968 and 1972. Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson also rejected a debate with his Republican rival in 1964.

The decisive moment came during the second Carter-Ford debate when Ford, the sitting president, made an irreparable gaffe when asked about the Soviet Union's influence on Europe.

"There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," he affirmed.

Result: Carter was elected.

1980

Carter vs Republican Ronald Reagan

- Reagan, a former Hollywood star, revelled in his talent for public speaking during the only debate between the two candidates, just one week before the election.

Speaking directly to the cameras, he asked voters that when they were about to cast their ballot: "It might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Result: Reagan was elected.

1984

Reagan vs Democrat Walter Mondale

- Reagan was 73 years old, but in his second debate with Mondale, on 21 October, he turned this apparent handicap into an asset.

"I will not make age an issue of this campaign," he said. "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Result: Reagan was re-elected.

1988

Republican George HW Bush vs Democrat Michael Dukakis

- Dukakis, who had been dubbed "ice man" by his opponent, failed to shake off this negative image.

Asked in debate whether he would favour the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered, Dukakis coolly replied: "No, I don't. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent."

Result: Bush was elected.

1992

Bush vs Democrat Bill Clinton

- For the first time, three presidential candidates shared the stage, with independent Ross Perot having been invited to take part. He sought to deflate the pompous, officious style of past presidents.

"Experience?" he replied when Bush asked him about his White House candidacy.

"I don't have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt. I don't have any experience in gridlock government where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else... but I do have a lot of experience in getting things done."

Also at one point, as the candidates were asked about US economic problems, the camera caught Bush surreptitiously looking at his watch.

Result: Clinton was elected.

1996

Clinton vs Republican Bob Dole

- The two debates, on 6 and 16 October, had few memorable moments.

Dole took aim at scandals which had marred the Clinton presidency, but the incumbent shot back that no attacks had ever helped solve the nation's problems.

Result: Clinton was re-elected.

2000

Republican George W Bush vs Democrat Al Gore

- Viewers were turned off by Gore's slightly patronising air during their first debate on 3 October. He also sighed loudly every time he found one of his opponent's answers unsatisfactory.

By their second debate the sighs and eye-rolls were replaced by a few smiles. The two men managed to agree so often on their positions that the moderator asked them to outline their differences.

Bush assured viewers: "I don't want to try to put our troops in all places at all times. I don't want to be the world's policeman.

"If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us."

Result: Bush was elected.

2004

Bush vs Democrat John Kerry

- The two men held three often-intense debates.

"The president didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception," Kerry said at one point.

But what everyone remembers is the mysterious bulge in Bush's jacket, which sparked a flurry of rumours on the Internet. The top theory was that it hid some kind of listening device through which the president was being fed the answers.

Result: Bush was re-elected.

2008

Republican John McCain v Democrat Barack Obama

- The debates four years ago were marked by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, and the candidates focused on how to reverse the economic plunge, as well as how to move on from the policies of the outgoing president.

"Senator Obama, I am not President George Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago," McCain snapped in the third debate.

But Obama remained confident and composed, even when McCain awkwardly referred to him as "that one", and Obama met his goal of reassuring Americans that he was ready to lead.

Result: Obama was elected.

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