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U.S. Presidential Debate - Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter (1980)
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The League of Women Voters, which had sponsored the 1976 Ford/Carter series, announced that it would do so again for the next cycle in the spring of 1979. However, Carter was not eager to participate. He had repeatedly refused to debate Sen. Edward M. Kennedy during the primary season, and had given ambivalent signals as to his participation in the fall.
The LWV had announced a schedule of debates similar to 1976, three presidential and one vice presidential. No one had much of a problem with this until it was announced that Rep. John Anderson might be invited to participate along with Carter and Reagan. Carter steadfastly refused to participate with Anderson included, and Reagan refused to debate without him.
The first debate was moderated by Bill Moyers and took place in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 21. President Carter was nowhere to be found. Anderson, who many thought would handily dispatch the former Governor, could, according to many in the media, manage only a draw. The Illinois congressman, who had been as high as 20% in some polls, and at the time of the debate was over 10%, dropped to about 5% soon after. Anderson failed to substantively engage Reagan, and the two spent a good portion of the debate simply criticizing Carter for refusing to participate.
As September turned into October, the situation remained essentially the same. Governor Reagan insisted Anderson be allowed to participate, and the President remained steadfastly opposed to this. As the standoff continued, the second round was canceled, as was the vice presidential debate.
With two weeks to go to the election, the Reagan campaign decided that the best thing to do at that moment was to accede to all of President Carter's demands, and LWV agreed to exclude Congressman Anderson from the final debate, which was rescheduled for October 28 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Moderated by Howard K. Smith and presented by the League of Women Voters, the presidential debate between President Carter and Governor Reagan ranked among the highest ratings of any television show in the previous decade. Debate topics included the Iranian hostage crisis, and nuclear arms treaties and proliferation. Carter's campaign sought to portray Gov. Reagan as a reckless "hawk." Gov. Reagan would have none of it, and it came as no surprise then, when the candidates repeatedly clashed over the nuclear weapons issue in their debate. But it was President Carter's reference to his consultation with 12-year-old daughter Amy concerning nuclear weapons policy that became the focus of post-debate analysis and fodder for late-night television jokes. President Carter said he had asked Amy what the most important issue in that election was and she said, "the control of nuclear arms." A famous political cartoon, published the day after Reagan's landslide victory, showed Amy Carter sitting in Jimmy's lap with her shoulders shrugged asking "the economy? the hostage crisis?"
Gov. Reagan's demeanor, on the other hand, was sunny, tolerant, and almost folksy, somewhat like Andy Griffith's Andy Taylor character. When President Carter made a reference to what he saw as the governor's record, voting against Medicare and Social Security benefits, Gov. Reagan replied with a nonchalant "There you go again."
In describing the national debt that was approaching 1 trillion dollars, Reagan stated "a billion is a thousand millions, and a trillion is a thousand billions." When Carter would attack the content of Reagan's campaign speeches, Reagan began his counter with "well, I don't know that I said that, I really don't."
In his closing remarks, Gov. Reagan asked a simple yet devastating question that would resonate with voters in 1980 and beyond: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to whom you will vote for. If you don't agree, if you don't think that this course that we've been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have." According to President Carter's Press Secretary Jody Powell's memoirs, internal tracking polls showed the President's tiny lead turning into a major Reagan landslide over the final weekend.
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