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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Prize fighters

Politics | As the candidates prepare to go toe-to-toe in debates, history says a lot is at stake

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

More than three weeks before Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska, were set to meet in St. Louis for their Oct. 2 vice presidential debate, Biden was already predicting a messy fight.

"She's going to make it as personal as she can. She's going to take a lot of straight lefts and jabs at me, she's going to try to get me to respond in a personal way," Biden told a Chicago audience. "That's not my style. I'm not going to do it."

Throughout September, staffers and allies were prepping candidates for the three presidential debates and the one VP debate that could produce the decisive moments within a tight struggle. Biden, for example, tapped Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to stand in for Palin during debate rehearsals. Despite sharp ideological differences with Palin, Granholm bears some similarities to the candidate: She is a 49-year-old governor with three children. (Palin, 44, is a first-term governor with five children.)

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Considering Biden's 30 years in the Senate, and previous presidential runs, Palin faces a formidable match. Saint Louis University political scientist Ken Warren compared the contest to another epic battle: "The vice presidential debate will attract a lot of interest because of David, so to speak, going up against Goliath."

In the center ring, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are facing the weightiest political bouts of their careers as well: three televised debates on Sept. 26, Oct. 7, and Oct. 15. As the debates unfold before an estimated 70 million viewers (more than any other televised event outside the Super Bowl), how will the candidates spar? What should viewers look for, and how will they know who wins? And what does a candidate's debate performance say about the kind of leader he or she might be?

For those with ringside seats or living room views, here's a guide to the matches of the year.

The history

Television viewers watched presidential candidates slug it out live for the first time in September 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy met for the first of four televised contests dubbed the "Great Debates."

The Kennedy/Nixon match-ups revealed at least one thing about televised contests: image matters. Nixon, who appeared pale and slightly unshaven, was also recovering from a knee injury that left him fatigued and thin. Kennedy, who had spent the first two weeks of September campaigning in California, appeared tan and fit.

Many who heard the first debate on the radio declared Nixon the winner. But by the end of the fourth televised contest, Kennedy's visual style and political substance delivered a one-two punch that Nixon couldn't match. Kennedy and others later attributed his narrow victory in November partly to his debate performance in September.

Americans wouldn't see another televised debate until 1976, when President Gerald Ford challenged Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter to a contest that became famous for a Ford blunder: The president was panned for quizzically declaring that the Soviet Union didn't dominate eastern Europe. Ford's mistake revealed another axiom of televised debates: one-liners matter. Subsequent debates would confirm that a single comment could define a candidate-for better or worse.

In the 1984 presidential debates, President Ronald Reagan cleverly squashed concerns over his age (compared with his younger Democratic opponent Walter Mondale) by quipping: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

When vice presidential candidate Sen. Dan Quayle loosely compared himself to Sen. John Kennedy in the 1988 debates, his opponent, Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, delivered a devastating comeback: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Quayle and Vice President George H.W. Bush easily won in November, but Quayle fought credibility questions for the next four years.

Other debates proved that subtle cues matter: President George H.W. Bush ignited a firestorm when he glanced at his watch during a debate with Democratic candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. Bush battled the perception that he was bored.

Vice President Al Gore's public perception suffered after a debate against George W. Bush in 2000 where Gore sighed loudly during Bush's remarks and aggressively stepped into his opponent's space. Campaigns took note: Manners matter too.

These days, campaigns spend months focusing on rehearsing a litany of possible questions with candidates, all while poring over the lessons of the past.

The ground rules

Debate organizers at the Commission on Presidential Debates have been planning this year's contests for nearly two years. The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization has managed general election presidential debates since 1987, determining the site and format for each contest.

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