A History Of Third Debates

bush and gore at second debate side by side AP

Two obscure names from the Cold War past are worth noting as George W. Bush and Al Gore prepare for their third and final debate: Quemoy and Matsu.

Forty years ago, that tiny pair of islands off mainland China was the rhetorical ground zero in the third debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. As sharp as their exchange was at the time, it also underscores how third presidential debates in prior years tend to be footnotes. TV ratings are no help, since they're almost always lower for the third round than for the first and second encounters.

"History does show us that these third debates - in the past, anyway - have not been terribly memorable or dramatic," said Prof. Alan Schroeder, a presidential debate scholar at Northeastern University in Boston.

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  • Three debates between White House wannabes per campaign are more the exception than the rule. While 1960 set an all-time record of four debates, only two subsequent elections before this year featured three face-offs: 1976 and 1992. Two debates are typically the norm, although Carter and Ronald Reagan met just once in 1980. No debates took place in 1964, 1968, or 1972.

    If 1960's third Kennedy-Nixon debate was mired on Quemoy and Matsu, 1976's round three between Carter and Gerald Ford was a Bicentennial dud. The ex-Georgia governor and the incumbent president fielded mostly domestic questions - from unemployment to gun control to Supreme Court appointments - without a single overarching theme. No stirring phrase - and no memorable gaffe a la Ford's "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe …" - emerged from this debate.

    In 1992, the third time was too late for George Bush the elder. Bush's performance was lackluster in his first two debates with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Texas billionaire Ross Perot. The president's lowest point came when he glanced at his wristwatch during the second "town hall" debate - a moment that many voters interpreted as "Is this over yet? I just don't want to be here. Can I go home now?" While Bush's effort in the third debate is regarded as his best from that fall, nothing from that showdown shook the voters from where they were heading.

    Schroeder, author of the book Presidential Debates - 40 Years of High-Risk TV, said the number of debates that are held depends upon the closeness of the race. Challengers - particularly underdogs - always want as many debates as possible. Incumbents and front-runners in the polls always favor less, if any, encounters.

    In a "fairly evenly matched" race, "the potential exists for more debates … In years where you have a more settled race and a clearer leader in the polls, you're likely to have fewer debates," Schroeder told CBSNews.com.

    That reveals the common thread among those past presidential years with three or more debates. 1960 and 1976 were close contests with razor-thin outcomes. 1992's three-way race was tight, too. And 2000 appears ready to see-saw down to the wire.

    Schroeder said round three between George W. Bush and Al Gore in St. Louis will be "unusual." First, the format will be the "town hall" style, which he said could "moderate" the tone of the Texas governor and the vice president. Also, foreign policy could loom larger due to recent international new: the U.S.S. Cole tragedy and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

    Still, town hall debates generally don't elicit tons of geopolitical queries from everyday voters. In 1996, only two of the 20 questions posed to Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in their town hall showdown dealt with foreign policy. Expect more of the same this time.

    "An audience of American citizens asking questions would tend to reinforce the idea that the things they'll be interested in is of a more domestic policy nature," Schroeder said.

    And anyone who hopes for a decisive, climactic moment in St. Louis in which Bush or Gore scores a rhetorical "knockout punch" against the other should probably think again.

    "I'm not sure this debate will be the final 'deal closer' that either candidate hopes that he can achieve" with the voters, Schroeder said.

    • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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