History Lesson: Past Debates

The third debate between Bush, Clinton and Perot was the most watched debate in history. In this debate, the candidates resumed their attacks on each other: Bush blasted Clinton’s record as governor and his alleged draft-dodging during the Vietnam War; Clinton assailed Bush for ignoring the nation’s economic woes; and Perot unexpectedly contended that Bush had pandered to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

1996 Election

President Clinton headed into the debate season full of confidence — he had a sizeable lead over his Republican opponent Sen. Robert Dole and his approval ratings were high. Probably because of Clinton’s substantial lead over Dole in the polls, viewership of the debates declined sharply between 1992 and his debates with Dole in 1996. For the vice-presidential debate, viewership dropped by almost half between 1992 and 1996.

Perot was invited to participate in the 1992 debates because he met the Commission requirements of a national organization and signs of competitiveness and national interest. However, the Commission did not invite Perot to participate in the debates in 1996 based on his adjudged failure to meet the same criteria. Perot challenged the Commission in court, but his petition was denied.

The first scheduled debate, set for September 26 in St. Louis, was canceled because Clinton addressed the United Nations and held a fund-raiser the night before the event.

October 6, 1996

Who: President Bill Clinton and Sen. Robert Dole Where: Hartford, Conn. Moderator: Jim Lehrer Format: 2-minute opening statements; 1 ½-minute answers; 1-minute rebuttal; ½-minute response; 2-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; Networks Ratings: 46.1 million viewers

In the first debate, the two candidates sparred on the economy, Medicare spending, tax cuts, and foreign affairs. Dole attacked Clinton as a big-spending Democrat beholden to elite liberal special interest groups. He also subtly questioned the President’s character in light of Whitewater and the other campaign finance scandals plaguing the Clinton White House. Clinton, however, stuck to a positive message, claiming the nation was better off after four years of his administration.

After this first debate, Dole was criticized by some in his party for not attacking Clinton’s character more aggressively. According to accounts published after the election, some of Dole’s reticence may have been attributed to his campaign’s knowledge at that time that the Washington Post had interviewed a woman who claimed she had an affair with Dole during his first marriage. The Post never published the story.

October 9, 1996

Who: Vice-Presidential Debate — Democratic candidate Al Gore and GOP candidate Jack Kemp Where: St. Petersburg, Fla. Moderator: Jim Lehrer Format: No opening statements; 1 ½-minute answers; 1-minute rebuttals; ½-minute responses; 3-minute closing statements Sponsor/Broadcasters: CPD; Networks Ratings: 26.6 million viewers

Gore and Kemp sparred over tax policy, the economy, Medicare, and foreign policy. In addition, they touched on controversial issues such as abortion and affirmative action-issues that had not been raised in the first showdown between the presidential nominees. The vice-presidential debate was cordial, with both participants pledging to forego personal attacks.

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