Key moments from US presidential debates through the decades


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The Independent US


John F Kennedy vs Richard Nixon

In the first ever televised presidential debate in 1960, John F Kennedy wowed voters with his looks, tan and easy charm against an unshaven, tired and shifty-looking Richard Nixon. The inexperienced Kennedy was the winner according to viewers, even though listeners on the radio gave it to Nixon.

Ronald Reagan vs Jimmy Carter

In his 1980 debate against Ronald Reagan, President Jimmy Carter earnestly delivered a detailed set of proposals for healthcare. When he finished, Reagan just chuckled, telling Carter, “There you go again.”

Ronald Reagan vs Walter Mondale

During Reagan’s presidential debate against Walter Mondale in October 1984, moderator Henry Trewhitt asked Reagan if, at 73, he doubted his own capacity as a Cold War commander-in-chief. With trademark wit, Reagan responded, “Not at all, Mr Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also 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.”

Dan Quayle vs Lloyd Bentsen in a 1988 vice-presidential debate

In 1988, George Bush’s running-mate Dan Quayle said during the vice-presidential debate, "I have as much experience in the congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." His Democrat opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, stingingly responded, "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

George Bush vs Bill Clinton

During a 1992 presidential debate, a member of the audience asked the candidates how the country’s weakened economy affected them personally. George Bush senior, then president, who visibly looked at his watch while the question was asked, could only manage a stiff response, before the young Bill Clinton let the speaker tell the hall how she had been affected. He then offered an impassioned and erudite response, ending, “This decision you’re about to make better be about what kind of economic theory you want. What I think we have to do is invest in American jobs, American education, control American healthcare costs, and bring the American people together again.” The debate is credited with winning round many of Clinton’s doubters.

Barack Obama vs John McCain

In 2008’s presidential debate, Barack Obama, who faced questions over foreign policy experience, told John McCain, “John, you’re absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But coming from you, who has threatened extinction for North Korea and sung songs about bombing Iran, I don’t know how credible that is.”