The first debates under the U.S. electoral system were in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. Each debate lasted three hours, and slavery and the union were the topics.
The next formal debate wasn't until 90 years later when Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey debated in the Oregon Republican Presidential Primary. The one-hour radio debate was heard by 40-80 million persons, and had only one topic--whether to ban the Communist Party in the United States.
The first general election presidential debate was in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. What is most remembered is the telegenic "image" presented by Kennedy and the decidedly non-telegenic presence of Nixon. Nixon didn't wear make-up and was recovering from the flu. Kennedy wore make-up (though he already looked tan) and was coached on how to sit (legs crossed) and what to do when he wasn't speaking (look at Nixon).
In their 1976 debate, Jimmy Carter benefited when President Ford stated, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." The press played up Ford's remark as a major blunder, and many analysts thought it helped Carter win the election.
The 1980 debates allowed Ronald Reagan to present himself as a moderate and humorous candidate--shedding criticism by President Carter that he was conservative to the extreme. In 1984, Reagan again used humor to allay fears that he was too old to be president: "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."
In 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis cemented his wooden image by responding to the question of what he would do if his wife was raped and murdered with a turgid reiteration of his opposition to the death penalty.
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