The Arizona GOP Presidential Debate – And Four Other Presidential Debates that Mattered

The results of the Michigan Republican presidential primary election tomorrow, Tuesday, February 28 will have a determinative impact on the final outcome of the race for the nomination.


If Mitt Romney loses the primary in his native state of Michigan, he is finished.  GOP center-right players, particularly governors, will call for a new center-right candidate to be substituted for Romney.  While Rick Santorum will win in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania and Newt Gingrich will win Georgia, there will be a plethora of “favorite son governors” who will keep their delegations neutral until the convention in Tampa in August.   No candidate will garner enough delegates for a first ballot nomination, and the GOP will experience its first brokered convention since Wendell Willkie’s triumph in Philadelphia in 1940.


If Mitt Romney does eke out a win in Michigan, together with a victory in Arizona on Tuesday, he will regain his frontrunner status and have a genuine chance at a first ballot nomination.  In order to do so, however, he will have to win two out of the following four state primaries:  Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, or Georgia.


A Romney victory in Michigan will be due primarily to one factor:  Romney’s triumph over an unprepared and strategically unfocussed Rick Santorum last Wednesday night in the Mesa, Arizona debate.  If Romney goes on to win Michigan and then the Republican nomination and ultimately the Presidency, the Mesa debate will have indeed had an historic impact on the nation.  Prior to the debate, Santorum was headed for a Michigan victory.  It was the debate that appears to have turned matters around.


If Mitt Romney is elected President, the Mesa debate will be on a list of Presidential debates that affected the course of history, together with the following four others:  1) the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on September 26, 1960; 2)  the Bobby Kennedy-Gene McCarthy California primary debate on June 1, 1968; 3) the Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter debate on October 28, 1980; and 4) the George H.W. Bush – Michael Dukakis second debate on October 13, 1988,  Each of these debates merits a brief overview.


John F.  Kennedy-Richard Nixon:   September 26, 1960


The story of this debate has now been told to three generations of secondary and college students.  The various facets are well known:  how radio listeners thought Nixon won, but how television viewers thought Kennedy had won decisively, due to Nixon’s poor “Lazy Shave” makeup and haggard appearance – Nixon had recently recovered from a knee injury but was still pale, underweight, and running a fever.  As the late Theodore White, the author of The Making of the President 1960 noted, the appearance of the two candidates side by side put the inexperienced Senator Kennedy on the same footing as the experienced Vice President Nixon.  Due to massive vote fraud, nobody will ever know who really won this close election.  There is no doubt, however that without his first debate breakthrough, Kennedy would have lost the election.


Robert Kennedy – Eugene McCarthy California Democratic Primary Debate – June 1, 1968


In my view, this Presidential debate affected history more than any of the others – and in a most tragic way.


In early 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy (D-New York) trailed incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey in delegates, since the party machinery in caucuses and controlled conventions selected most of the delegates in those days.


In order to win the nomination, RFK had to demonstrate to the party bosses his voting power by winning a streak of primaries over Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minnesota),who had entered the race against incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in late 1967 as a critic of his Vietnam policies.  Unfortunately for Bobby, he lost the Oregon primary to McCarthy and appeared headed for defeat in California prior to the June 1, 1968 debate.


While McCarthy did not perform poorly in the debate, Kennedy gave a virtuoso performance that ensured his victory in the California primary on the following Tuesday, June 4.  Yet a tragic shadow was following him.


Kennedy had emphasized America’s commitment to Israel during the campaign and the need to sell Israel bombers.  Sirhan Sirhan, a young Jordanian citizen living in California, had determined that Kennedy must be assassinated as a matter of defense for his fellow Arabs.  Kennedy in the debate reemphasized America’s commitment to Israel.  This further motivated Sirhan to murder RFK.


On the night of June 4, 1968, shortly after RFK gave his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Sirhan stepped out of the shadows and fired a revolver at Kennedy, resulting in his death on June 6.  In my view, the debate the previous Saturday and the assassination dramatically altered the course of American history.


Had RFK not been assassinated, I believe he would have won the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination and subsequently defeated Richard Nixon in the November, 1968 election.  Unknown to most, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley was a strong dove who felt America must withdraw from Vietnam.  He would have endorsed Kennedy after his California victory and helped RFK gain the support of other Democratic Party leaders.  The irony of history was that after the RFK assassination, Daley endorsed Humphrey, LBJ’s endorsed candidate, and supported the Chicago police in their excessive use of force against anti-war demonstrators at the August, 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.


Had RFK not been assassinated and gone on to defeat Nixon, there would have been no Watergate, no American incursion into Cambodia, and no Kent State.  Readers of this column will be surprised to learn that despite my status as a conservative Republican, I believe that Robert Kennedy had the “right stuff” to be a great American President.


Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter:  October 28, 1980


Going into the last week of the 1980 campaign, Reagan and Carter were in a virtual tie.  Carter had high negatives, but Reagan had not yet “closed the sale” with the American public.


Reagan certainly did lock up the election in the debate.  He gave as flawless a performance as I have ever seen in a presidential debate.  Americans will long remember his turning towards Carter and saying “There you go again.”  After Reagan gave his closing remarks, beginning with the words, “Are you better off than you were four years ago”, the election was over.  Carter’s poll numbers collapsed, and Reagan was elected as America’s 40th president one week later.


George H.W. Bush – Michael Dukakis: October 13, 1988


Prior to this debate, Bush held only a slight lead over Dukakis.  The first debate had been a fairly evenly fought contest, resulting in little change in the aftermath.


Unfortunately for Dukakis, he suffered from the flu prior to the October 13, 1988 second debate, and he came into the debate physically weak and unprepared.  Bush had a particularly good night.  Adding to his woes, Dukakis handled very awkwardly a question from moderator Bernard Shaw.  Shaw asked Dukakis, an opponent of the death penalty, whether he would support the death penalty for a man who hypothetically raped and murdered his wife, Kitty.  Dukakis responded that he would not, but his answer appeared to be overly legalistic, without any personal dimension.


As a result of the debate, Bush lengthened his lead and won a landslide victory in the Electoral College.



We will know sooner or later the historic significance, if any, of the Mesa, Arizona debate.  Candidates should always realize, however, from the four above examples, that debates do matter, a lesson Rick Santorum seemed to have forgotten prior to the Mesa debate.


Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.

The Arizona GOP Presidential Debate – And Four Other Presidential Debates that Mattered