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Our World

October 4, 2012

10 memorable moments in presidential debates

President Barack Obama debated Mitt Romney for the first time Wednesday night in arguably the most anticipated event of the campaign season.

Who doesn't like a good debate? Debates hold the potential to etch lasting impressions in voters' minds about presidential candidates' personalities and policy positions. And part of the appeal of debates stems from memories of past showdowns that have left enduring imprints on our collective political consciousness. (Though, as history shows, there are few examples of debates dramatically shifting the trajectory of a campaign.)

Below is our list of the top 10 moments from past presidential debates, in reverse chronological order. The rundown includes moments that shook up campaigns, others that revealed something telling about a candidate's temperament, and the zingers and one-liners against which all campaign quips are compared:

2008: John McCain calls Barack Obama "that one"

McCain's altogether head-scratching use of the term "that one" when discussing an energy bill Obama supported was not the kind of debate attention the Republican needed to generate as he sought to make up ground in the polls. It set off a round of post-debate debating in the media (was it a stroke of condescension, contempt, or was it just plain confusing?), which was not the kind of news the underdog McCain was hoping to generate.

2000: Al Gore's sighs

Debates are as much about conveying personality as politics. Gore's sighs at a debate with George W. Bush in 2000 came across as condescending, a perception that didn't help his cause in a historically close race.

1992: George H.W. Bush checks his watch

The incumbent conspicuously checked his watch just as an audience member began a question about how the national debt has affected him personally. What's more, it took the president a couple more minutes to come to terms with the question. The exchange fueled the contrast with Bill Clinton, who excelled at appearing to empathize more than the Republican.

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