Just ask Gerald Ford: Debates full of historic moments

Donald Trump: The Walking GOP Debate Gaffe Machine
Donald Trump: The Walking GOP Debate Gaffe Machine

A presidential debate is one of the few areas left in American politics where spontaneity and surprise still play a part. This is why such encounters often draw big TV audiences, and Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate is likely to be no exception.

A major attraction will be the presence of billionaire and former reality TV star Donald Trump, currently the front-runner for the GOP nomination. He is a showman, a master of the put-down, and he can be quite entertaining, especially if his presidential rivals or the moderators trigger his anger and condescension. It was Trump's blustery presence that boosted viewership of the first GOP debate on August 6. An estimated 24 million people watched.

Click through to see images from the first GOP debate:

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Adding to the drama is that one never knows what bizarre moment or insightful incident may occur. Such potential game-changers have happened several times in the past, sometimes having a major effect on the campaigns. Here are some highlights and lowlights:

John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon, 1960: This was the first nationally televised debate between two major-party nominees, Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Richard Nixon of California. It happened on Sept. 26, 1960, only a few weeks before Election Day. JFK looked vigorous, bright and handsome, partly because he agreed to have makeup applied. Nixon looked stiff, a bit shifty-eyed and pale; he had rejected professional makeup and just used a product designed to cover the stubble on his face. People who listened on radio said Nixon won; those who saw it on TV said Kennedy won. At a minimum, the performance increased Kennedy's stature and likability and it may have been the reason he edged Nixon for the presidency in a very close election.

Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter, 1976: There were no presidential debates in 1964, 1968 and 1972 but they resumed in 1976. President Gerald Ford, Nixon's Republican successor after The disgraced president resigned amid the Watergate scandal, battled Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia. After lagging in the polls, Ford concluded that he needed a lift, so he agreed to debate. But he suffered an important setback when he seemed to say the Soviet Union didn't control Eastern Europe. "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration," Ford argued in what the media depicted as a major gaffe. This added to his reputation as a lightweight. Ford lost narrowly to Carter that November.


The microphone incident with Ronald Reagan, 1980: Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, had two big debate moments in the 1980 presidential cycle. In the first, in February, he showed up at a Republican forum in New Hampshire to debate his rivals for the GOP nomination, only to find the moderator, a local journalist named Jon Breen, had decided to include only Reagan and his main competitor, George H.W. Bush. Reagan wanted the other candidates included but Breen ordered his microphone turned off. Reagan got angry and protested, declaring "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green." He got the moderator's name wrong but the incident showed Reagan was a strong, decisive personality who could think on his feet, and this put him firmly on the road to the nomination.

Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan, 1980: A week before the 1980 election, Reagan, having won the Republican presidential nomination, had his second major debate moment when he jousted with incumbent Jimmy Carter. This confrontation is remembered for two lines by Reagan. One was, "There you go again," a criticism directed at Carter for supposedly distorting the truth. The second line was when Reagan asked Americans in his concluding remarks, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" This crystallized the election. Voters decided they were worse off, and Reagan won in a landslide.

Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale, 1984: Incumbent Reagan, 73, answered a question about whether he was too old to be president with a memorable touch of humor. "I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign," Reagan said. "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." He coasted to re-election over Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, 56.

George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis, 1988: Another memorable moment in presidential debating came during GOP nominee George H.W. Bush's showdown with Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. The moderator asked Dukakis if he would favor an irrevocable death penalty for a killer who raped and murdered his wife Kitty. Dukakis replied matter-of-factly that he had always opposed capital punishment as governor of Massachusetts, and still felt that way. "I haven't seen any evidence that it's a deterrent," he said. But his response was widely criticized for being cold and emotionless, making Dukakis seem overly cerebral, distant and unlikable.

Lloyd Bentsen-Dan Quayle vice presidential debate, 1988: This encounter generated one of the most effective put-downs in presidential and vice presidential debate history. Youthful-looking Dan Quayle, the 41-year-old Republican vice presidential candidate, favorably compared his congressional accomplishments to those of John F. Kennedy, who was elected at 43. Wizened Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice presidential nominee and a long-time veteran of the Senate, said, "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." It was a triumphant moment for Bentsen but not enough. The Bush-Quayle ticket went on to defeat the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket, partly because of Dukakis' much-criticized performance in his debate with Bush.

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George H.W. Bush-Bill Clinton-Ross Perot, 1992: Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush wasn't having a great time at the three-way presidential debate in 1992 as he faced Democratic challenger Bill Clinton and businessman Ross Perot, an independent candidate. Bush made the mistake of looking at his wristwatch, seemingly eager for the debate to end, but this added to the impression that he was isolated and didn't realize that the country wanted answers for the nation's problems.

Rick Perry's "oops" moment, Republican debate, 2011: Then-Gov. Rick Perry of Texas tried to underscore his plan to abolish three federal departments, but he had a brain freeze during a GOP candidates' debate in late 2011. "I would do away with the Education, the, uh, Commerce, and let's see, I can't. The third one I can't. Sorry. Oops." He apparently couldn't remember the Energy Department. The lapse badly hurt Perry as a serious candidate and his campaign went nowhere.

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