WASHINGTON - For 90 minutes Thursday night at the University of Miami, presidential nominees George W. Bush and John Kerry will square off in the first of three nationally televised debates that could determine the outcome of the 2004 election.
You have to say "could," because for all the potential importance of the confrontation on the designated subject of foreign policy, the history of such presidential debates since their beginnings on television 44 years ago has been uneven.
The case for the contention that they are make-or-break events is usually best made by reference to the first, between Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960.
On that occasion, the lesser-known young senator from Massachusetts, with a forceful and vigorous presentation, exceeded most expectations among those who watched, and postdebate polls indicated he gained the stature he needed to be taken seriously as a challenger to the then-incumbent vice president.
Some polls also suggested that without the visual element, Nixon's presentation had convinced many radio listeners that he had held the upper hand. But a weary and sweating Nixon looked to many viewers to be wilting under the pressure.
Kennedy's razor-thin election in 1960 with that boost from the first debate seemed for a time to have sounded a death knell for future televised presidential debates. Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson, running far ahead of Republican Barry M. Goldwater, simply declined to share the cameras with his opponent and coasted to victory. Why, the LBJ strategists argued, should their man risk some unforeseen gaffe?
That attitude prevailed in the 1968 and 1972 election cycles, when the once-wounded Nixon declined to give such high-profile television exposure to his Democratic challengers, first Hubert H. Humphrey and then George S. McGovern.
But in 1976, the nation's first unelected president, Gerald R. Ford Jr., after pardoning the resigned Nixon of Watergate crimes, found himself trailing Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter, and his political brain trust decided he'd better agree to debate Carter.
Warnings of the perils of debating were realized when Ford in the second debate misspoke, claiming in response to a question that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," a stunning denial of reality at the time. Ford was given a chance to restate the view but he stuck to it, throwing his campaign into a stall.
Whether that answer caused his narrow defeat by Carter has been in dispute to this day. Many campaign analysts argued that Ford's pardon of Nixon was the chief culprit, but in any event the risks of debating were well-illustrated by the episode.
For all that, in 1980, vulnerable incumbent Carter agreed to one debate with Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, to his eventual regret. The former California governor came into the debate amid questions as to whether as a faded movie star he was up to the presidency. But he prevailed with one simple question to television viewers: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" On election day, the answer from the voters was a resounding "No."
The opportunities as well as the perils of debating were now clear, and in each succeeding election year strategists of both sides engaged in an elaborate dance - not only as to whether debates should be held but under what conditions. By now, the candidate who dragged his feet could count on being accused of ducking what was becoming an institution in the presidential election process.
In 1984, incumbent Reagan, running well ahead of Walter F. Mondale in the polls, agreed to debate him twice and stumbled badly the first time around, sparking speculation that his age was catching up to him. But Reagan rebounded in the second debate with his sharp sense of humor, answering a question about it by cracking: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." Case closed, and Reagan was re-elected in a landslide.
To this point, the debates had been hit-and-miss affairs run by various sponsors. So in 1987, the major party chairmen, Republican Frank Fahrenkopf and Democrat Paul Kirk, joined forces and created a Commission on Presidential Debates that has arranged and overseen them ever since. But that didn't prevent a quadrennial "debate on the debates" over how many, where, when and under what ground rules.
In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis took a political hit in his debate with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush from moderator Bernard Shaw's stinging opening question: "If Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"