Bush's Debate Experiences

ByKaty Textor

Fall 2000 -- — Although he faces one of the nation’s most respected debaters, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has proved he can hold his own against more experienced orators. Take a look back at his past debate performances.

Bush’s Experience

Although Bush entered the presidential race untested on the national debate stage, he has proved to be a competent, if not spectacular debater. Throughout his short political career, Bush has benefited from low expectations of his debating abilities. The fact that he skipped no less than three GOP primary debates, and the fact that he was reluctant to agree to the Commission on Presidential Debates proposal, has done little to contradict the impression of a candidate uncomfortable with this unavoidable fact of campaign life.

However, Bush is adept at memorizing and delivering sound bites as well as projecting an air of confidence onstage, and managed to do well in most of his previous debates despite his opponents’ best efforts to get him riled. One can be sure that at least a few Bush supporters will be holding their breath, waiting to see if the Texas governor makes it through this.

1978 Race for Congress

During a local radio debate against state Sen. Kent Hance, a Democrat, during their 1978 congressional race, an inexperienced Bush was unable to keep his cool under pressure, becoming visibly angry when asked about his family’s ties to the Trilateral Commission and a “one-world government.” He was still fuming after the event, cursing the talk-show host and refusing to shake hands.

During a televised 1978 debate, Hance characterized Bush as an Ivy League Washington insider running on his family name. Hance argued that Washington was corrupt because Yalies like Bush had the run of the place, and noted that in contrast his own “daddy and granddad were farmers. They didn’t have anything to do with the mess we’re in right now, and Bush’s father has been in politics his whole life.”

1994 Gubernatorial Race

In the only debate of Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign against then-Gov. Ann Richards, expectations were that Richards, known as an excellent debater, would dominate. Richards was quick to make an issue of Bush’s lack of political experience, saying that although Bush “means well,” that “This is not a joke. We’re talking about who is going to run the State of Texas.”

Bush, however, proudly touted his lack of public experience, saying it gave him “the freedom to think differently,” and accused Richards of practicing “old style politics.” Richards also tried to discredit Bush based on his business career, to which Bush replied, “This business of trying to diminish my personality based upon my business career is, frankly, astounding to me. We ought to be discussing welfare reform, juvenile justice, ways to make Texas a better place for our children.”

Bush himself writes in “A Charge to Keep” that although “both sides claimed victory,” the debate featured “no major mistakes, no knockout punches. I felt I had won by holding my own with an experienced elected official.”

1998 Re-Election Campaign

After noting that “if you have a big lead … why debate” Bush finally faced 1998 gubernatorial challenger Democrat Gary Mauro on a low ratings guaranteed Friday night during high-school football season. As he does with Gore today, Bush accused Mauro of making costly campaign promises without being able to fund them.

Mauro tried to make an issue of Bush’s silver-spoon upbringing, and also brought up the fact Bush would not rule out running for the presidency. To that question, Bush replied that he was still undecided on running and that “if it bothers you when you go into the voting booth, then make that part of your consideration … I don’t think there would be all this speculation going on if the people didn’t think I was doing a good job as governor.” His performance was adequate, but not totally solid.

2000 Campaign for Republican Nomination

Bush appeared in 10 out of 13 total Republican primary debates.

After generating a slew of bad press for failing to show up for two previous New Hampshire debates and one Arizona forum, Bush made his GOP primary debate debut on Dec. 2, 1999 in Manchester, N.H. Although jabbed at by publisher Steve Forbes for his earlier absences and his refusal to rule out raising the retirement age for Social Security, Bush deflected Forbes’ assertions, and went out of his way to make nice with his top primary rival, Sen. John McCain. Bush’s tentative performance unnerved some supporters.

With McCain surging in the polls, Bush was more willing to mix it up with his chief opponent in the debate held on Dec. 13 in Des Moines. In addition to sparring with McCain over the virtues of campaign finance reform and their contrasting tax plans, Bush made waves when he answered a question on the philosopher or thinker who had affected him most: “Christ. Because he changed my heart.”

Battling a cold, Bush turned in one of his weakest performances in the Jan. 26, 2000 New Hampshire primary debate. He tried to strike a moderate tone on abortion while at the same time reaffirming his anti-abortion stance and defending the no-exceptions language in the GOP platform: “We must welcome people from different persuasions into our party, or different points of view into our party.” In the candidate Q&A portion of the debate, Bush used his question to Keyes to ask, “What’s it like to be in a mosh pit?”

On the other hand, Bush did well in his Larry King-moderated appearance with Alan Keyes and McCain on Feb. 15, before the South Carolina primary, appearing knowledgeable on subjects ranging from China to Russia to the budget surplus. At one point, after McCain reiterated his pledge to run a positive campaign, Bush pulled out a McCain flier distorting some of his positions, which had reportedly been left on South Carolinians’ car windshields.

Bush appeared calm and confident in his 10th and final debate appearance in Los Angeles (with McCain appearing via satellite and Bush and Keyes in Los Angeles). One tense moment came when Bush criticized McCain for charging that he is anti-Catholic, telling McCain he didn’t “appreciate it one bit.” McCain denied the charge, saying he had merely served up “straight talk” about Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University. The debate was also notable for Bush’s seeming laugh or smirk when asked about Calvin Jerold Burdine, who was released from jail in Texas after spending 16 years behind bars because his lawyer slept through the trial.

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