Quips, gaffes and stumbles: Debates have history of memorable moments

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Here we go again.

Voters, pundits and political junkies will be glued to Wednesday night’s presidential debate to see more than just a back-and-forth on national defense, the economy and other issues.

Of equal interest will be the potential zingers, one-liners, jokes, gaffes and blunders that have made debates timeless pieces of political pop culture.

Few remember who technically won the 1984 debate between incumbent Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Walter F. Mondale, but Reagan’s famous quip — “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” — is viewed as arguably the single greatest line uttered during a presidential contest and is by far the most memorable moment of that year’s debate circuit.

Democrat Lloyd Bentsen likely would have gone down in history as just another unsuccessful vice presidential contender were it not for his “You’re no Jack Kennedy” quip, aimed at Republican Dan Quayle, who often countered shots at his youth by boasting that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy when he became president.

The 2000 contests aren’t remembered for their policy content, but rather for Al Gore’s audible sighing as his Republican challenger, George W. Bush, answered questions.

Mr. Gore’s determined stroll toward Mr. Bush and Mr. Bush’s casual nod of recognition became the lasting image of the 2000 debates.

Those moments and countless others, analysts say, encapsulate why the nation’s political followers treat debates as must-see TV.

Few tune in to learn the nuances of Republican Mitt Romney’s foreign policy or President Obama’s plan for technological investment. Instead, we watch to see whether a candidate falls on his face or skewers his opponent’s argument with a perfectly timed put-down.

Those instances become front-page news and usually push substantive discussions to the back burner.

“For the millions of Americans who don’t watch the debates, their view of the debate comes from the sound bite,” said Robert Watson, a presidential scholar and professor of American studies at Lynn University, the host of the third and final presidential debate this year.

“It’s unfiltered. These debates are tailor-made that a gaffe or a zinger will live iconically forever,” Mr. Watson said. “Today, with social media, every gaffe by Romney or Obama is going to be tweeted and retweeted. This stuff develops legs. It has a life of its own.”

The debate gaffe is most damaging, analysts say, when it reinforces or confirms a damning stereotype.

In 2004, for instance, Mr. Bush’s campaign was predicated on convincing voters that Democrat John F. Kerry was weak on defense and wasn’t as trustworthy when it came to protecting the American people.

The narrative began to take hold, largely because of Mr. Kerry’s opponents’ “swift-boating” ad campaign.

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