Politics

A rubber rat, a tan suit, a bunch of gobbledygook

Republican presidential hopefuls Ronald Reagan, left, John Anderson, Howard Baker, Robert Dole, Philip Crane, and George H.W. Bush all showed up for a debate that was to be between Reagan and Bush on Feb. 23, 1980, at the Nashua Senior High School in Nashua, N.H.

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Republican presidential hopefuls Ronald Reagan, left, John Anderson, Howard Baker, Robert Dole, Philip Crane, and George H.W. Bush all showed up for a debate that was to be between Reagan and Bush on Feb. 23, 1980, at the Nashua Senior High School in Nashua, N.H.

New Hampshire has regularly played host to dramatic presidential primary debates. As state Republicans prepare for Monday evening’s Voters First Forum in Manchester, here’s a look back at some historic first-in-the-nation debate moments:

“Likable enough”

Barack Obama was riding high after winning the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucuses. That changed – briefly – after his performance in a Manchester debate just before the New Hampshire primary. When the moderator asked his rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, if she had the personal charm to beat him, Obama interrupted. “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” he said. The comment fell flat. Days later, Clinton won the New Hampshire race.

“I’m paying for this microphone”

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In 1980, the Nashua Telegraph arranged a one-on-one debate for GOP frontrunners Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, leaving out several other serious candidates. The Federal Election Commission called the event unfair – so Reagan decided to pay for the debate himself and at the last minute invited all the candidates. Bush, sandbagged, didn’t want to participate. For an awkward moment the two sat silently on stage. Reagan started to speak to the crowd, but the moderator called for Reagan’s mike to be shut off. “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,” Reagan snapped. The crowd loved it. A few days later, Reagan won the primary.

Athlete amid the pols

In January 1988, six Republican candidates including George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and Pete du Pont debated at Dartmouth College. But the liveliest discussion took place outside the hall, where tennis great Arthur Ashe led more than 250 activists on the Dartmouth Green in protest against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. “The Republicans would rather see the issue disappear,” Ashe told the student newspaper.

Unlikely participant

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The most surprising debater in a January 1988 University of New Hampshire forum was Gary Hart, who had dropped out of the Democratic race the previous spring after a report that he had entertained 29-year-old model Donna Rice at his Washington townhouse overnight. Seven months later, Hart jumped back in. The UNH debate did little to resuscitate his campaign; by March he was gone for good.

“Gobbledygook”

In a 1984 debate in Hanover, N.H., eight Democrats took the stage, but most of the fireworks were between Walter Mondale and John Glenn. Glenn ridiculed Mondale’s campaign platform as “vague gobbledygook” — which were apparently fighting words to Mondale, who leapt to his feet. “Point of personal privilege!” he shouted, in a gentlemanly protest.

Earth tones

In 1999, Vice President Al Gore and former senator Bill Bradley debated at Dartmouth College. Among the lasting images: Gore’s unusual choice of a tan suit and cowboy boots. His fashion statement was the subject of ridicule when news broke that Gore had paid consultant Naomi Wolf for sartorial advice. Earth tones, she reportedly advised, were more reassuring to audiences.

“Running on my own”

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In September 2007, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s husband became a point of discussion in a Dartmouth College debate. Asked if it was good for the country to potentially have 28 years of Bush and Clinton administrations, she responded: “I’m running on my own.” And when the moderator noted that her response to a question about torture was contrary to Bill Clinton’s view, she said. “He’s not standing here right now. I’ll talk to him later.”

The Gore factor

A December 2003 debate in Durham, N.H., turned on a topic that seems far-fetched a dozen years later: whether former vice president Al Gore’s surprise endorsement that very day would throw the race – and perhaps the White House – to former Vermont governor Howard Dean. (Reminder to readers: It didn’t.)

“No comparison”

At a 2007 University of New Hampshire debate, Mitt Romney was embarrassed by a question about an ill-chosen comment on the campaign trail, in which he said his sons had served the country by volunteering for his campaign instead of fighting in the war Iraq. “Well, there is no comparison, of course,” he said.

Rubber rat

A 1972 University of New Hampshire primary featured well-known Democrats Edmund Muskie and George McGovern, among others. But it was the obscure candidate Ned Coll who stole the show with a disquieting prop. Coll lofted a large rubber rat over his head during a discussion about urban issues. “This is the real problem,” he said.

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