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Cracker Squire

THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

More so than his acceptance speech, we know it has come down to this 1st debate for Kerry -- A couple of other Presidential debates that made history.

Like so many, I remember the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates as if they were yesterday. There were four televised "Great Debates" between Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Nixon.

The first ever was held in late September, and 70 millions viewers tuned in, an incredible number, to watch in black and white.

These Great Debates marked television's grand entrance into presidential politics. They afforded the first real opportunity for voters to see their candidates in competition, and the visual contrast was dramatic.

In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual "5:00 o'clock shadow."

Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him looking so fit," Nixon later wrote. (Nixon would later refuse to debate in the 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns. As a result, there was not one presidential debate during Vietnam.)

In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery and charisma.

Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.

Commentators broadly agree that the first debate accelerated Democratic support for Kennedy (for you younger readers, there was much discussion about Kennedy being Catholic both before and after the convention).

In hindsight, however, it seems the debates were not, as once thought, the turning-point in the election. Rather than encouraging viewers to change their vote, the debates appear to have simply solidified prior allegiances. In short, many would argue that Kennedy would have won the election with or without the Great Debates.

Next let's run the clock forward 20 years. The Reagan-Carter debate could be said to stand for the proposition that debates can change the direction of presidential races.

In 1980Ronald Reagan used his only debate with President Jimmy Carter to overcome questions about his capacity to be president, and in doing so turned a close race into an electoral landslide.

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