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History Says, Debate Moments Matter

As President Obama and Mitt Romney enter tonight's debate, here are a few lessons, compliments of others who have taken to the podium:

Laugh At Yourself

The second 1984 presidential debate showcased President Ronald Reagan's ability to gently poke fun at his critics and himself. Asked if his age, then 73, could prevent him from fulfilling the duties of his office, Reagan joked: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Even Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, 55, laughed.

Sen. John McCain got a big laugh in the Republican primary debate in 2007 with a joke about Woodstock — while still managing to score points with a reference to his military service and time as a prisoner of war. "I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time."

Do Your Homework

In 1976, in the midst of the Cold War, President Gerald Ford visibly baffled debate moderator Max Frankel — and many Americans — with his insistence that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."

Don't Invite Unflattering Comparisons

Debate preparation can be like scouting an opposing team before a football game. That's just what Democrat Lloyd Bentsen did when he faced off against Republican Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate.

Quayle, then 41, had been drawing comparisons to John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail. When Quayle brought up the comparison during the debate, Bentsen was ready with his classic and biting "you're no Jack Kennedy" monologue.

Say 'No' To Loaded Questions

During this year's Republican primary debates, Newt Gingrich showed on several occasions the value of angrily denouncing questioner and question. It's a lesson 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis would have been well advised to attempt when faced with the hypothetical question about whether he would change his opposition to the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered. Some viewers saw the personal nature of the question as unfair; others took Dukakis' matter-of-fact response as emotionally callous.

Stick To Talking Points

In 1980, Ronald Reagan used his well-known debate one-liner, "There you go again," against President Jimmy Carter.

And then, four years later, he used it again, against Walter Mondale.

Remember, You're On TV

In 1992, while an attendee of a town hall debate asked about a stagnating economy, President George H.W. Bush checked his watch — a small gesture that critics said made him appear indifferent to the question.

In 2004, Democrats used President George W. Bush's "scowls" during his debates with John Kerry as a supposed example of his rudeness in this post-debate ad.

Be ... Likeable

During the 2008 Democratic primary debates, Barack Obama sort of complimented Hillary Clinton with the line, "You're likable enough, Hillary," which some saw as a cheap shot.

It was reminiscent of 1984, when at the vice presidential debate, incumbent George H.W. Bush seemed to be talking down to Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a major party ticket.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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