Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor
Can a second presidential debate really alter the course of an election? If history is any guide, it’s usually the first debate that gets the biggest audience and sets the tone, which would be bad news for Donald Trump, whose first debate performance may go down as one of the most fatal in presidential history.
John Kennedy was able to look young and vigorous in the first-ever debate in 1960, and Richard Nixon never really caught up. Al Gore rolled his eyes and sighed melodramatically in his first debate with George W Bush in 2000, an image of arrogance and pompousness that he never shed. Gerald Ford claimed there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” in his first 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, a gaffe that would help doom his re-election chances.
But there are examples where a candidate was able to turn things around later on in the debate series. The most significant — and perhaps most relevant to tonight’s duel — was Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984. In the first debate against former vice-president Walter Mondale, Reagan stumbled over budget details and other policy minutiae, leading to questions about whether the incumbent’s age, then 74, was catching up with him.
Those close to Reagan, including his wife Nancy, accused campaign staff of overwhelming the president with facts to remember. Paul Laxalt, a Nevada senator and longtime Reagan confidant, famously said that in the second debate, they would “let Reagan be Reagan”. The result was one of the most famous zingers in presidential debate history. When asked about his age, the incumbent quipped: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
The line had even more impact because a camera at stage right cut to a two-shot that showed Mondale laughing uproariously at the joke. And it was a joke: Mondale was 56 at the time, and had not only spent four years as vice-president, but had two terms as Minnesota senator under his belt — and had worked in national politics, including as an aide to fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey, since the 1940s.
Reagan’s age ceased being a campaign issue and he went on to win 49 states in November, losing only Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Trump has never been particularly Reaganesque. But he may need the Gipper’s deft touch to turn things around tonight.