Presidential debate: How our columnists assessed the latest Trump-Biden battle – as it happened

Peter Spiegel, American Editor

Can a second presidential debate really change the course of an election? If history is any guide, it’s usually the first debate that draws the biggest audience and sets the tone, which would be bad news for Donald Trump, whose first debate could be one of the deadliest ever. presidential history.

John Kennedy may have looked young and vigorous during the very first debate in 1960, and Richard Nixon never really caught up. Al Gore rolled his eyes and sighed melodramatically during his first debate with George W Bush in 2000, an image of arrogance and bombast he never let go. Gerald Ford claimed there was “no Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe” during his first 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, a gaffe that would help undermine his re-election chances.

But there are examples where a candidate was able to turn things around later in the debate series. Most important – and perhaps most relevant to tonight’s duel – was Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign. In the first debate against former Vice President Walter Mondale, Reagan stumbled upon the details of the budget and other political details, leading to questions whether the age of the then 74-year-old incumbent was catching up with him.

Those close to Reagan, including his wife Nancy, have accused campaign staff of overwhelming the president with facts to remember. Paul Laxalt, a Nevada senator and longtime Reagan confidant, 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. Asked about his age, the incumbent joked: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit my adversary’s youth and inexperience for political purposes.

The line had even more impact because a camera to the right of the stage cut into two shots that showed Mondale laughing out loud at the joke. And it was a joke: Mondale was 56 at the time and had not only served four years as vice president, but also had two terms as a Minnesota senator under his belt – and had worked in politics nationally, including as an assistant to a fellow Minnesotan. Hubert Humphrey, since the 1940s.

Reagan’s age ceased to be a campaign issue and he won 49 states in November, losing only Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Trump was never particularly Reaganesque. But he may need the skill of the Gipper to turn things around tonight.

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