- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2000

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush will meet tonight in Boston in the first of three presidential debates involving the major party candidates. The latest polls suggest the race is a virtual dead heat. Clearly, the debates will matter, as they have in the past.

Historians compare the tightness of this election with the results of those of 1960 and 1976, the two post-war presidential elections that were decided by the smallest margins. In 1960, for example, reversals of a mere 1 percent of the Texas vote and less than 0.1 percent of the Illinois vote would have been sufficient to elect Richard Nixon rather than John Kennedy. In 1976, reversals of less than 0.2 percent of the Ohio vote and less than 1 percent of the Mississippi vote would have been sufficient for President Gerald Ford to prevail over Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. In both 1960 and 1976, the impact of the presidential debates arguably could have provided the decisive difference in these two extremely close contests.

The first 1960 debate represented the first time two presidential candidates argued face-to-face. It was also, of course, the first televised presidential debate. Sen. Kennedy's appearance on the same stage with twice-elected, incumbent Vice President Nixon gave Kennedy the national recognition that he desperately sought. For his part, Nixon agreed to share the stage because of his confidence in his own debating skills. Contemporaneous reports suggested that radio listeners thought Nixon won the debate, while television viewers gave the nod to Kennedy, in part because Nixon appeared drawn and haggard, largely due to the constant pain he was suffering from a knee injury aggravated earlier that day.

In 1976, presidential candidates debated for the first time since the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy encounters. President Ford and Georgia Gov. Carter met three times. For all the repartee those debates provided, undoubtedly the most memorable moment was a colossal gaffe Mr. Ford uttered during the second debate on Oct. 6. Contrary to the facts on the ground, Mr. Ford insisted that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" and, inexplicably, promised that "there never will be under a Ford administration." Offered an opportunity to retreat from his assertions, Mr. Ford instead plunged ahead, declaring, "I don't believe the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union."

For both 1960 and 1976, one could argue that the debates significantly contributed to the eventual winner's narrow victory. However, it's also worth recalling the important role played by the single debate between President Jimmy Carter and Republican candidate Ronald Reagan on Oct. 28, 1980. Prior to the debate, most polls reflected a dead heat well within their margins of error. The Gallup Poll had President Carter ahead 45 percent to 42 percent among likely voters, with independent candidate John Anderson receiving 9 percent. An ABC News-Louis Harris poll gave an identical advantage to Mr. Reagan. The Time, Newsweek and New York Times-CBS News polls each gave Mr. Carter a 1-point lead.

A week later, however, Mr. Reagan won the election by a comfortable 10-point margin, which produced an electoral college landslide. His performance in the debate proved to be decisive. Not only had Mr. Reagan convinced enough independents and Democrats that he was not the nuclear warmonger depicted by Mr. Carter. He also seized the debate's most telling moment. Ask yourselves, he suggested to voters in his closing remarks, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Post-convention volatility in the polls suggests that millions of tonight's viewers will be swayed by the candidates' performances. If the past is any guide, in all likelihood tonight's encounter and the next two debates will prove decisive factors in the selection of the man who will lead the world's sole superpower for the next four years.

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