After Ronald Reagan's poor performance and questionable command of the facts in his first presidential debate against Walter Mondale in 1984, critics wondered if age was starting to rob the 73-year-old president of the mental capacity he needed to lead the free world.
Reagan kept mangling facts in a second debate. But even so, he disarmed his critics and his opponent with the quip, "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
The remark dominated the news cycle and rolled off pundits' tongues long after Reagan cruised to a landslide victory on Election Day.
As President Bush and John Kerry drill on the issues before tonight's debate on foreign policy and homeland security, they likely are burnishing zingers and ripostes that they hope will neatly encapsulate their own messages or indelibly stain their opponent through Nov. 2.
Perhaps their best material even could stick in political lore as vividly as Reagan's "There you go again" dismissal of Jimmy Carter in 1980, or Lloyd Bentsen's "You're no Jack Kennedy" putdown of 1988 vice-presidential aspirant Dan Quayle.
Voters tend to watch presidential debates to get an overall impression of each candidate as a person or leader, observers say. But soon afterward, the soundbite-style nature of modern media coverage can amplify effective gaffes or quips, and maybe even change initial perceptions of who won the debate.
Not everybody is pleased by the phenomenon.
"The problem with the presidential debates, I think, is that it really has become much more spectator sport than an effort to educate the voters on the issues," says Marie Danziger, director of the communications program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The boldest debate quips are rarely, if ever, off the cuff.
"Most of the things that we remember as the key debate moments have been scripted," says Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston and author of Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV. "'There you go again,' 'I won't exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience,' 'You're no Jack Kennedy.' Those were all practiced in advance."
The candidates are also likely practicing to avoid going too far out on a limb, thus avoiding debating gaffes that have long thwarted candidates — such as Al Gore's awkward sighs in 2000, George Bush's glances at his watch in 1992, Gerald Ford's insistence that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" in Cold War-era 1976 and Richard Nixon sweating next to a relaxed John F. Kennedy in 1960.
"I think Bush and Kerry are pretty evenly matched, so I don't know if this year will produce any knockout winners," Schroeder says. "My guess is that each of them will probably wage a fairly careful and restrained rhetorical strategy."
Still, Schroeder says, "I'd be willing to bet the deed to my condo that Bush will have some quip ready about Kerry's alleged 'flip-flops.' "
White House communications director Dan Bartlett may have let slip a Bush zinger when on Monday he cited a catchphrase from the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in a conversation with reporters.
"Senator Kerry keeps wanting … to say, 'Now, this is really my position,'" Bartlett said. "The question needs to be asked is: 'Is that the final answer?'"