A short history of interesting moments in presidential debates, 1976-2008

By the way, does anyone remember any pithy lines or other notable events from those three debates? I'm not saying there weren't any, but none come to mind eight years later.

Probably the biggest story to come out of any of the 2004 debates was the rumor that President Bush was getting his lines fed via some sort of contraption controlled by Karl Rove. The story spread on the Internet when an image surfaced after a debate that showed a large solid object between Bush's shoulder blades. It certainly played into liberal paranoia that Rove truly was "Bush's Brain."

Bush at the Coral Gables debate
  • Bush at the Coral Gables debate
Okay, you say. That was eight years ago. Well, does anyone remember anything of notoriety during the three debates that then Sen. Barack Obama had with Arizona Sen. John McCain in '08? (Other than McCain threatening to not show up to the first engagement, saying he was needed in Washington to deal with the financial crisis?)

Perhaps the most notable moment was when McCain pointed to Obama and referred to him as "that one."

How about the 2000 debates? Everyone remembers those! Just as Mitt Romney is compared to John Kerry as being a poor candidate, nobody got worse press than Al Gore, especially from the so-called liberal media.

Gore was mercilessly mocked about his body language, which was all over the place during the three debates. Notorious for eye-rolling and sighing during his first encounter with Bush, Gore was so ridiculed for the performance that it looked like he'd been shot up with tranquilizers for his second sit-down debate, seeming as if he were in a somnolent haze. His third debate was better, but it was considered the "Goldilocks" performance. You know, not too hot, not too cold. Gore did not help himself in those debates, even though on substance he was as good if not better than W.

In 1996, I can't remember for the life of me anything significant from the debates between Bob Dole and President Clinton.

In 1992, there was the H. Ross Perot spectacle. USA Today ran a story about the now 82-year-old two-time former presidential candidate (he also ran in 1996).

Perot definitely added excitement to the three debates that fall. Watch this excerpt in which he blasts what would happen if the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed, which it was the next year.

In 1988, everyone remembers CNN anchor Bernard Shaw shockingly asking Michael Dukakis what he would do with a criminal who raped and murdered his wife Kitty.

Dukakis, who told reporters later he was suffering from a bad cold, infamously replied coldly and with extreme detachment.

Incidentally, Shaw's question was recently mentioned when officials of the Presidential Commission on Debates were accused of playing it safe by bringing PBS's Jim Lehrer out of retirement to host Wednesday night's throwdown in Denver — something about wanting someone a little rougher around the edges (i.e. Bernard Shaw).

The first of the two debates scheduled between Ronald Reagan and Fritz Mondale in the fall of 1984 was a classic. Why? Though it's barely mentioned now, Ronald Reagan was stunningly horrific, prompting a lot of D.C. chatter that he was perhaps mentally incompetent.

Even though he was heavily expected to thrash Mondale (and did), for the first couple of days after that spectacle there was serious discussion in the media that Mondale had a chance, because Reagan's behavior was so bizarre.

You never see clips of this on cable, but you can hear the soundbite from the second debate, when Reagan made a joke regarding his own age (he was 73 at the time), saying he wouldn't hold Mondale's youth and inexperience against him.

The crowd (and Mondale) laughed, and the story told is that the quip put an end to concerns that Reagan had "lost it." He was extremely popular, and people wanted him to give a decent performance in the second debate, which he did.

Finally, let's go back to 1976, the first presidential debates held since the famous JFK-Nixon debates 16 years earlier.

The big gaffe was when New York Times editorial writer Max Frankel asked Gerald Ford about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and Ford choked big-time. This was held at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

Hopefully, something memorable will come out of Denver, but don't bet on it.

It was exactly eight years ago this past Sunday when John Kerry debated George W. Bush on the University of Miami campus in Coral Gables.

The debate was as hyped as this Wednesday night's encounter in Denver. I fondly remember it because I was able to cover it for the Pacifica Radio network. Kerry was the clear-cut winner of that first candidate forum, which focused on foreign policy and homeland security.

A lot of folks compare this November's election to 2004, and at times the analogy is apt; Obama is the extremely vulnerable incumbent up against, well, a Massachusetts stiff — a challenger who has allowed himself to be defined by his opponent, and goes into the first debate trailing in the race.

Kerry excelled in all three debates, and after his strong showing on Sept. 30, the meter moved considerably in his direction, with some polls putting him — for the first time — near the lead over Bush.

But that lead faded. A week before the general election, Bush led Kerry by five points in a Gallup poll, and ended up winning by 2. 5 points.

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