Last night’s Republican primary debate in Las Vegas was easily the most petulant in a series of five similar gatherings held over a tight, six-week period that’s seen the candidates bounce up and down in the polls and fire off a series of memorable verbal shots across each other’s laboring bows.
For Mitt Romney and rival Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the familiarity accrued over the past month and a half turned to full-bred contempt during an exchange about illegal immigration, with Romney going so far as to place his hand impatiently on Perry’s shoulder.
While Romney’s power grab might have appeared unusual in the context, it is far from the first – and miles from the most shocking – debate dust-up in recent history.
Here are some of our favorites:
Rick Lazio Takes On Hillary Clinton
The Race: In 2000, Republican congressman Rick Lazio took on then-first lady Hillary Clinton in a bid to replace the retiring U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The Place: Buffalo, N.Y.
Rick Lazio was a little-known, two-term congressman from Long Island when state Republicans chose him to replace Rudy Giuliani (the New York City mayor had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and dropped out) in the race against the well-funded Clinton. Toward the end of their first debate, Lazio demanded his opponent sign on to a “soft money” ban, meaning neither candidate could tap into their parties’ cash reserves.
Hillary agreed to shake on it, but Lazio demanded she sign a document (1:24) he had been carrying in his suit pocket. Then, papers in hand, the Republican walked across the stage to Clinton’s lectern and insisted the she put pen to paper. As Clinton looked over the “New York Freedom From Soft Money Pledge,” Lazio grew impatient, at one point huffing and saying, “I’m not asking for you to admire it, I’m asking you to sign it!”
In the end: Lazio’s aggressive move didn’t do him any favors. Clinton won the election handily, 55-43 percent. She was sworn in to office January 3, 2001.
Al Gore Stands Up To George W. Bush
The Race: Then-Vice President Al Gore was trying to extend the Democrats’ eight-year stay in the White House as he faced off with Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election.
The Place: The Washington University Field House, in St. Louis, Mo.
The last of the three celebrated (by comedians, at least) debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush was the friskiest. The candidates were given the freedom to roam the floor as they responded to questions from moderator Jim Lehrer.
The debate took an odd turn, though, when Bush stood up to explain what distinguished him from his opponent. “The difference,” he said, “is that I can get it done.”
Gore tried to interrupt, but Bush continued speaking. Frustrated, Gore sat up off his stool and took steps in Bush’s direction. Bush was looking the other way, so when he turned to see the vice president mere feet away his face froze (0:35). The audience laughed. Gore retreated back to his seat.
In the end: There’s no debate about it, President George W. Bush went on to serve two terms in the White House.
John McCain Grows Impatient With Mitt Romney
The Race: The 2008 Republican primaries; the campaign to succeed George W. Bush as the GOP standard-bearer.
The Place: The Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Though not quite up to the level of nastiness we’ve seen in the current competition, the 2008 Republican race had a few squabbles of its own. John McCain, looking to pick up where he left off eight years earlier before ultimately losing out to George W. Bush, was struggling early in the campaign. But in Mitt Romney –making his second appearance here! – the Arizona senator found a willing opponent.
At issue: Whether or not Romney had advocated for a specific withdrawal date for U.S. troops in Iraq. McCain said he had; Romney denied it. And so it went, back and forth and back again, with McCain growing visibly frustrated. The eventual Republican nominee had something more than an argument, too. He had a pen and looked ready to use it… and not to make more notes. Jump to around the 3:30 mark of the video and tell us what you think Senator McCain is thinking.
In the end: McCain only hurt Romney on the election days. He scored a big win in New Hampshire (right in the former Massachusetts governor’s backyard) and never looked back, winning the GOP nomination and a date with Barack Obama in the general election.
The Gold Standard: Lloyd Bentsen
The Race: The 1988 presidential election pitted another Massachusetts governor, the Democrat Michael Dukakis, against incumbent vice president George H. W. Bush. But it was their running mates who came together for perhaps the most celebrated put-down in modern political history.
The Place: The Civic Auditorium in Omaha, Ne.
The first and only vice presidential debate of the 1988 campaign featured Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, a veteran U.S. senator from Texas, and relative newbie, 41-year-old Indiana Senator Dan Quayle. While not directly comparing himself to President John F. Kennedy, Quayle did go about making the point that both were relative political neophytes before entering national politics, and that like Kennedy then, he was ready now.
Senator Bentsen did not agree. So when Quayle pivoted to this argument during their debate, Bentsen pounced. “Senator,” he said, “I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
In the end: Quayle rode George H. W. Bush’s electoral wave into the White House. Bill Clinton swept both of them out four years later.
Killing Him With Kindness: Clinton Baffles Bush
The Race: The 1992 presidential election. Incumbent George H. W. Bush took a slumping economy into battle with “The Man from Hope,” Arkansas governor William Jefferson Clinton.
The Place: Richmond University in Richmond, Va.
This was less of a “dust-up” than a political mercy killing. The debate is best known for Bush’s artless and ill-timed glance at his wrist watch. By contrast, the energetic, younger Clinton was positively in his element responding to queries from voters in the audience.
Late in the debate, after Bush offered a vague explanation of his economic plan, Clinton jumped up to answer the same question. He began: “I have been the governor of a small state for 12 years… I have seen what’s happened in this last four years when — in my state, when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know them by name.” In all, Clinton spoke for 61 legend-making seconds. Check out Bush’s face at the 1:19 mark.
In the end: Bill Clinton was elected to the first of two terms as president a little less than a month later.
Stay tuned for more thrilling debate dust-ups as the 2012 presidential candidates get (even more) tired and desperate.