Presidential Debates: A History Lesson

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1960: Kennedy vs. Nixon

The setup: Nixon, proud of his 8-year record as vice president and his lawyerly debating skills, had little to gain. But he was eager to match up with Kennedy, who had to quiet doubts he was up to the job.

What happened: Most radio listeners thought Nixon had won. Television viewers saw something else in Kennedy - a confident, charismatic challenger, master of the elegant phrase. Key point: It wasn't what Nixon said. It was how he looked under the hot lights - sweaty, pasty and, thanks to a five-o'clock shadow, vaguely menacing. The election: Nixon later said, "Debates can affect the result, but only by two or three points." That's all Kennedy needed. 1976: Ford vs. Carter The setup: Carter, riding a wave of anti-Watergate sentiment, held a formidable lead in the polls. Ford, in office thanks to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation, couldn't afford not to debate. What happened: In the first debate, Carter's nervousness helped Ford. In the third, Carter sidetracked viewers by apologizing for using a Playboy magazine interview to expound on lust in one's heart. But the second debate overshadowed these when Ford insisted that Poland was not under Soviet influence. Key point: Ford's gaffe revived his reputation as a bumbler. The election: Ford overcame a huge deficit in the polls to make the race close, but Carter prevailed. 1980: Carter vs. Reagan The setup: Curiously, challenger Reagan initially resisted a debate, demaning that independent candidate John Anderson be allowed to take part. (The two even debated once without Carter.) But in mid-October, Reagan began dropping in the polls. A pro before the camera, he warmed to the idea of a one-on-one with the President. What happened: Carter spoke and gestured in that mechanical way he had; Reagan couldn't have been more relaxed. He mocked Carter with his tilted-head response, "Well, there you go again." Key point: Carter's odd discourse on his daughter Amy's concern about nuclear weapons gave the comedians fodder for a week. The election: Reagan won big. …