5 Memorable Moments in Presidential Debates

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As the Republican presidential candidates match wits in a seemingly endless run of primary debates, they know that their best sound bite might be replayed on a few newscasts, but a great quote could define their career. On the other hand, a huge gaffe on their part will quickly go viral on the Internet, be ridiculed by critics, and probably become the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit. In a worst-case scenario, the blunder might be remembered for years. Here are five memorable sound bites from past presidential (and vice presidential) debates.


5. “There you go again.”

As a former actor, Ronald Reagan was much more at ease in political debates and speeches than his contemporaries, earning the nickname “the Great Communicator” for his smooth delivery and timing. Although he dropped numerous memorable one-liners during his career (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), a simple reply to President Jimmy Carter during their lone 1980 presidential debate came to define his folksy charm. After Carter attacked Reagan’s stance on national health care, Reagan smiled and said, “There you go again.” Reagan liked the sound bite so much, and it generated so much buzz, he used the same line four years later in a debate with Walter Mondale. “You know, I wasn’t going to say this at all, but I can’t help it — there you go again,” he told Mondale. Even Mondale, who expected the line at some point, smiled.


4. “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe …”

President Gerald Ford already faced an uphill battle in his 1976 bid for re-election against Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter. His unpopular decision to pardon former President Richard Nixon for Watergate-related activities still angered many voters, and he was criticized in some circles as an intellectual lightweight. He certainly didn’t help his cause during an October 1976 debate with Carter. When asked about the spread of communism, Ford confidently replied, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe …” Even the debate moderator, Max Frankel, asked Ford if he really meant what he said. Undaunted, Ford pressed on: “I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.”


3. “I’m not going to exploit … my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

In President Ronald Reagan’s bid for re-election in 1984, many people expressed concerns about the 73-year-old leader’s age. When moderator Henry Trewhitt raised the age question during a debate between Reagan and Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, Reagan pounced. “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.” Reagan, of course, went on to win in a landslide.


2. Kennedy vs. Nixon (1960)

The first 1960 debate between Democratic presidential contender John F. Kennedy and GOP candidate Richard Nixon may be more noteworthy today, a half-century later, than it was at the time. After the debate, those who had listened to it on the radio — there obviously wasn’t as much to do in those days — felt Nixon had gotten the better of Kennedy. But TV viewers saw a very different story, as the tanned, confident Kennedy faced off against a pasty-looking, sweating Nixon. The debate provided the first evidence of the critical role that television would come to play in national politics.


1. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

This classic moment from the 1988 vice presidential debate tops this list because it is the funniest debate sound bite in modern U.S. politics. After questioning GOP candidate Dan Quayle’s lack of experience, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen listened as Quayle compared his credentials to former president John F. Kennedy’s early career. In his response, Bentsen, with perfect dramatic timing, told Quayle, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” In the end, Quayle got the last laugh, as the Bush-Quayle ticket defeated Dukakis-Bentsen.


One More: “There will be a giant sucking sound going south.”

Independent Ross Perot was given no chance to win the presidency in 1992, going up against incumbent President George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. But Perot’s straight talk captured the imagination of millions of Americans who saw him as a fresh alternative to the two major parties. In a three-way presidential debate, Perot blasted the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement as a threat to American jobs, noting that if it were implemented, “There will be a giant sucking sound going south,” as U.S. businesses moved production to Mexico. Clinton won the election, but Perot finished with the best third-party performance in 80 years, receiving almost 19 percent of the popular vote. NAFTA went into effect Jan. 1, 1994. Critics contend NAFTA had cost the United States almost 700,000 jobs as of 2010.

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