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Political debates lack TV drama of past

Late in their debate, Sarah Palin looked over at Joe Biden and channeled the memory of Ronald Reagan’s famed putdown of Jimmy Carter in 1980. “There you go again,” she said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Late in their debate, Sarah Palin looked over at Joe Biden and channeled the memory of Ronald Reagan’s famed putdown of Jimmy Carter in 1980. “There you go again,” she said.

Well, governor, we knew Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was a friend of ours. And, governor, you’re no Ronald Reagan.

Debate moments destined to linger in memory beyond the current campaign, like that last paragraph’s playful co-opting of Lloyd Bentsen’s withering 1988 insult of Dan Quayle, have been missing this year with three down and one to go. The power of the Internet in the YouTube era has gone largely untested.

“The Web has amplified a few moments in the debates, but not many, because there are very few moments worth being amplified so far,” said Phil Noble, founder of, a company that follows how the Internet is being used in politics. “There really haven’t been any defining moments in the debates.”

Reagan was a master at capturing a debate moment that everyone will remember. His “there you go again” line defused his opponent’s attack. Four years later, when people wondered whether Reagan was getting too old for his job, he said he wouldn’t make an issue of opponent Walter Mondale’s youth and inexperience.

Even Mondale had to smile at that one, and the issue essentially disappeared.

Bentsen’s attack cemented Quayle’s public image as a lightweight (even if he — not Bentsen — was elected vice president). President Gerald Ford was hurt in 1976 when he falsely declared that Poland was not under the domination of the Soviet Union, and Michael Dukakis damaged in 1988 by his clinical answer to a question on how he’d respond to an attack on his wife.

Even barely perceptible events have stuck: The first President Bush spotted looking at his watch while debating Bill Clinton, and Al Gore’s audible sighing at remarks by George W. Bush.

A serious mistake, like Howard Dean’s odd whoop in the 2004 primary season, can be replayed endlessly in the cable TV and Internet echo chamber, and do serious damage.

Not much to mockEven the late-night comics are disappointed. “Did you watch the vice presidential debate last night?” Jay Leno said at the open of his “Tonight” show monologue last Friday. “There was nothing embarrassing from either candidate. Damn!”

There have been attempts, particularly from the McCain-Palin campaign, which is running behind in the polls and needs to capture news cycles and the public’s imagination. Palin followed her “there you go again” quip with “say it ain’t so, Joe,” a reference to a 90-year-old baseball scandal.

Palin had asked Biden, as they shook hands before their debate, if she could call him Joe. In the “Saturday Night Live” debate version two nights later, Palin impersonator Tina Fey said it was because she had practiced some attack lines using “Joe.”

McCain tried Tuesday night by suggesting that settling on an Obama tax policy was like nailing gelatin to a wall.

“It gets harder and harder with every election cycle to manufacture something that is so obviously a line,” said Alan Schroeder, author of “The Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV.” “At this point, we’ve been conditioned as an audience to listen for these things, and they come off as kind of bogus.”

Neither Republican McCain nor Democrat Barack Obama rely heavily on rehearsed zingers, said John Reiss, executive producer of MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

“I don’t know if it’s just not in the personalities of these men,” said CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Who is ‘that one’?An odd McCain moment Tuesday night, when he referred to Obama as “that one” while standing next to him, was replayed on the TODAY show and “Good Morning America” on Wednesday. But the economy, not the debate, was the lead story on the morning shows and debate clips were scarce on the cable news shows during the daytime.

One Palin mashup has shown up on the Internet following her debate. It strings together several of her phrases in mocking fashion — including six separate mispronunciations of ‘nuclear’ — and was viewed more than 359,000 times on YouTube in six days. Another Palin collection contains lowlights from her interviews with Katie Couric and Charles Gibson.

An “Obama-Biden Gaffes” video on YouTube, with Biden clumsily introducing “Barack America” at a rally, had less than 4,000 views.

With none of the existing mashups reaching a half-million views, it’s evidence that “not much is happening,” Noble said.

One moment, one line — either planned or inadvertent — can change all that in the final debate next Wednesday.

With all the media outlets waiting to see one, there are real incentives for the debaters to avoid them, said Mitchell McKinney, author of “Presidential Debates in Focus.”

“It may very well lead to more scripted and rehearsed and less real politicians,” McKinney said, “if that’s possible.”