1992 Presidential Debates
S U M M A R Y
The 1992 general election debates are noteworthy for the precedents they established. It was the first time three candidates shared a single stage in a televised debate. The issues were discussed in different formats -- and the formats used were a major step in breaking away from the characteristic press panels that were used from the beginning of modern televised debates. The second debate's first-ever "town hall meeting" approach directly involved voters in the process by allowing them to pose questions to the candidates. ( 768K QuickTime movie)
All four debates were held during a nine-day period, turning them into a televised "mini-series," that attracted a large viewership, including the largest audience ever to watch a presidential debate.
The major themes included trustworthiness and character, the nation's economic problems and the need for change. Perot's favorite themes: lobbyists and special interests running Washington; managing the huge national debt; and term limits.
P R E S I D E N T I A L D E B A T E # 1
Date: October 11, 1992
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Site: Washington University
Participants: George Bush (R), Bill Clinton (D), Ross Perot (I)
Moderator: Jim Lehrer, PBS
John Mashek, The Boston Globe
Ann Compton, ABC News
Sander Vanocur, Freelance journalist, Freedom Forum
90-minute debate. Panelist question to candidate with a two-minute reply. One-minute rebuttal from second and third candidates. two-minute closing remarks by each of the three candidates.
None of the candidates committed any gaffes or struck any major blows in the first of three planned presidential debates. Perot's plain-spoken and humorous style won him praise. Clinton was described as cautious with the exception of his exchange with Bush over his participation in anti-Vietnam War protests in England. In what was called the most dramatic exchange of the night, Bush attacked Clinton for organizing anti-Vietnam War demonstrations "against his own country on foreign land ... when young men are held prisoner in Hanoi or kids out of the ghetto were drafted ... it's not a question of patriotism, it's a question of character and judgement," he said.
Facing the president, Clinton responded, "When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people's patriotism, he was wrong ... and a Senator from Connecticut stood up to him, named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism. I was opposed to the war but I love my country."
The debate was viewed as a critical chance for Bush to boost his poll ratings. Bush failed to do anything that altered the current race or diminish Clinton's lead. Bush stressed concerns about Clinton's trustworthiness and character and talked about the progress toward world peace that had been achieved under his administration. Clinton concentrated on the nation's economic problems and the failure of past Republican administrations -- the need for change. Perot highlighted his favorite themes: the government was being run by lobbyists and special interests; irresponsible officials were leaving a huge national debt to our children; tough measures were needed to put the country back on track. Bush and Clinton spent most of the debate attacking each other, neither focusing on Perot.
A poll conducted by CNN/USA TODAY on Oct. 11 found that of those watching, 47 percent rated Perot the winner, 30 percent voted Clinton and 16 percent voted Bush.
P R E S I D E N T I A L D E B A T E # 2
Date: October 15, 1992
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Site: University of Richmond
Participants: George Bush (R), Bill Clinton (D) and Ross Perot (I)
Moderator: Carole Simpson, ABC News
First "Town Hall" format debate in the history of televised presidential debates. 90 minutes. One moderator. Independent polling firm selected an audience of 209 uncommitted voters from the area. Candidates were asked questions by voters on the topic of the questioner's choice. Moderator also posed questions and asked in some instances for rebuttals. Closing remarks by each candidate
As in the first debate, none of the candidates emerged a clear winner or loser. The debate was again seen as a last ditch effort for Bush to shake-up the race. It was agreed that Bush failed to do this.
Instead of standing behind lecterns, the candidates sat on stools and walked around the open stage, surrounded on three sides by the audience.
The audience expressed disdain for personal attacks and urged the candidates to stick to the issues. That sentiment hindered Bush from attacking Clinton on his draft record as well as on so-called "character" issues. The questions focused primarily on domestic issues and the economy, which were seen as Bush's weaker areas. There was only one question on international affairs (Bush's strength).
Bush was seen on national camera checking his watch. When asked about the effect of the national debt on him personally he responded in general terms and said, "I'm not sure I get it. Help me with the question and I'll try and answer it." Clinton responded by saying as Governor of a small state for 12 years, "I have seen what's happened in this last four years when -- in my state, when people lose their jobs there's a good chance I'll know them by name ... America has not invested in its people. It is because we have had 12 years of trickle-down economics. We've gone from first to twelfth in the world in wages ... Most people are working harder for less money than they were making ten years ago."
Many said Perot's performance lacked energy and specifics in his answers. Perot emphasized the importance of reducing the deficit and national debt and called for bipartisan cooperation in Washington. Clinton argued for using the government to stimulate the economy while reducing the deficit by 50 percent over four years. Bush said he would not raise taxes or overexpand the government and called for a balanced-budget amendment, a line-item veto and a taxpayer checkoff rule.
When asked about term limits, Perot promised not to seek more than one term in office and said he'd take no salary while in office. Bush also supported term limits but Clinton opposed them. Clinton promised to propose a health-care reform plan his first 100 days in office.
A CNN/USA TODAY poll conducted Oct. 16-18, showed 58 percent calling Clinton the winner, 16 percent said Bush won and 15 percent said Perot.
P R E S I D E N T I A L D E B A T E # 3
Date: October 19, 1992
Location: East Lansing, Michigan
Site: Michigan State University
Participants: George Bush (R), Gov. Bill Clinton (D) and Ross Perot (I)
Moderator: Jim Lehrer, MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, PBS
Gene Gibbons, Reuters
Susan Rook, CNN
Helen Thomas, United Press International
Two-part format used a single moderator question period for the first half of the 90-minute debate, and a panel of journalists asking questions for the second half. The first half allowed for follow-up questions, the second half did not allow for them. Candidates allowed two-minute closing statements.
Jim Lehrer of PBS asked the questions for the first half of the debate. He then was joined by a panel of three journalists.
The debate featured attacks by Bush on Clinton's record as Governor of Arkansas, his draft record, and his economic plans. Perot (unexpectedly) attacked Bush's policy toward Iraq prior to the Gulf War by asserting Bush had refused to provide Congress with a copy of the administration's pre-invasion instructions to the US Ambassador to Iraq at the time. Bush called the accusation absurd but Perot did not back down. Perot also charged the Republican Party with raising "dirty tricks" to a "sick art form."
Lehrer asked each candidate about their credibility problems among voters. Clinton was asked about promising more programs than could be paid for. The Governor responded that his combination of spending cuts, tax hikes and government "investments" would be sufficient to stimulate the economy and reduce the deficit.
Bush countered by saying Clinton's economic policies would bring a return to "what it was like when we had a spending president and a spending Congress and interest rates ... at 21.5 percent under Carter. And inflation was at 15 percent."
Defending his administration, Bush said the economy was not doing badly and that the current recession was a global one. Bush said, "Mr. and Mrs. America, when you hear him say, 'We're going to tax only the rich,' watch your wallet, because his figures don't add up, and he's going to sock it right to the middle-class taxpayer and lower, if he's going to pay for all the spending programs he proposes."
When CNN's Susan Rook tried to pin down Clinton on a specific income level below which people would be exempt from a tax increase. Clinton said, "I will not raise taxes on the middle class to pay for these programs ... furthermore, I am not going to tell you 'read my lips.'" Perot said Clinton's economic plans would not reduce the deficit.
Lehrer asked Bush why he had been slow to respond to domestic problems. Bush responded, "We have had major accomplishments in the first term," and said Congress had blocked several of his proposals.
Perot was asked about his temporary departure from the race in June and if it represented a pattern of him abandoning difficult conflicts. Perot said he was not a quitter, "I'm here tonight folks. I've never quit supporting you ... And when you asked me to come back in, I came back in. I'm spending my money on this campaign."
Bush said Clinton showed a pattern of being on "one side of the issue one day and another on the next." Bush also attacked Clinton's record as governor, saying "in almost every category (Arkansas) was lagging ... Over the last ten years since he's been governor, they're 30 percent behind ... Arkansas is right near the bottom." Bush also slammed Clinton for not telling the truth about his draft record and military service.
Clinton countered many attacks by focusing on economic issues. He went after Bush over his broken 1988 pledge of "Read my lips. No new taxes," and accused Bush of failing with the economy. Clinton said, "In that first debate, Mr. Bush made some news" by announcing James Baker would be in charge of domestic policy. "Well, I'll tell you ... The person responsible for domestic policy in my administration will be Bill Clinton." Bush responded by saying, "That's what worries me."
A CNN/USA TODAY news poll taken after the third debate found that viewers thought Perot had won. Opinions, however, were tied between Clinton's and Bush's performances; 28 percent thought Clinton had done the best job, 28 percent Bush, and 37 percent said Perot.