Election 2012
Credit: Julie Denesha/Getty Images; Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Tonight in Denver, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will engage in the first of their three scheduled presidential debates. Obama leads in most national polls, defying some gloomy economic indicators in part because of Romney’s self-inflicted wounds. But tonight, everything can change with a quip or a gaffe, as approximately 60 million voters will tune in to compare the two candidates who want to be our next president. Ideally, their conversation will dig deep in to the substantial issues and formidable challenges that confront our country. But if televised debate history has taught us anything, it’s that even the most insignificant gesture or gleam of sweat — to say nothing of the crippling brain fart — can make all the difference.

Presidential debates probably play a disproportionately important role in electing our leaders — why should rhetoric count more than resume? — but this is their job interview, and the American people get the final say in who gets hired. One false move, and the race could be over. Romney enters October in need of a “game-changer,” and his time is running out.

“Romney has been running for president for like 11 years, and it all comes down to this one night,” Jon Stewart says. “Imagine how tight you’re going to squeeze that thing… I’m talking about his sphincter, not the debate.”

According to the New York Times, the Republican has been practicing debate zingers since August and is hoping to lure Obama into a trap where he can deliver a masterstroke that will redefine his campaign and the election dynamic. He has that chance tonight. It’s happened before. Over and over, actually. Ever since Richard Nixon’s not-ready-for-primetime performance at the first televised presidential debate in 1960, the medium has been cruel to the imperfect. Obama (“You’re likable enough”) and Romney (His Judge Smails bet with Rick Perry) have survived some near-gaffes in the past; they’re certainly to be on their toes tonight.

Click below for a few of the biggest winners and losers in presidential debate history.

1960: Senator John Kennedy versus Vice-President Richard Nixon

Nixon had been ill and his clothes didn’t fit. Kennedy had movie-star looks and was tan from campaigning in open convertibles. Nixon turned down professional makeup and had a glean when he began to perspire. But you don’t have to watch the entire debate to see why Nixon was doomed. Just watch the opening moments of the country’s first televised presidential debate. Kennedy is perfectly relaxed, with his legs crossed. Nixon is holding on to his chair like it’s about to take off. Game over. Radio audiences thought Nixon won the debate, but those who watched on television were convinced that Kennedy dominated. Television elected Kennedy, and its power was so feared that candidates would not debate on-air again for 16 years.

1976: President Gerald Ford versus Jimmy CarterIn a more typical election, Ford would likely not have agreed to debate his challenger. But after Watergate and his unelected partial term, there was pressure to resurrect the format. The Vice-President was famously lampooned for his physical stumbles, and he fell flat on his face when he insisted that Poland and other Eastern European countries were not dominated by the Soviet Union. High-school history teachers and average Americans who read the paper were perplexed by Ford’s version of international affairs. Likely, so were the Poles. Carter was elected.

1980: President Jimmy Carter versus Ronald Reagan

With gas lines, a stagnant economy, and American hostages in Iran, Carter’s popularity was in freefall. Reagan had been caricatured as a cowboy who couldn’t be trusted with the reins of power, but his sunny optimism on the screen softened all his rough edges. He answered the incumbent’s charges with a simple, “There you go again,” and then toppled Carter with the classic body blow, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan won in a landslide.

1984: Senator Gary Hart versus Walter Mondale

Hart was the flashy Democratic insurgent in 1984, but Mondale used a popular Wendy’s slogan of the time to cast doubt on Hart’s economic proposals. Mondale went on to win the nomination, where he was at least Reagan’s equal on the issues during the debates, but he couldn’t compete with the master in style points.

1988: Senator Lloyd Bentsen versus Senator Dan Quayle

People had questioned the experience of Quayle to be George Bush’s running mate in 1988, and he took it upon himself to establish his credentials by comparing them to previous presidential candidates, including a young John Kennedy. Just watch Bentsen’s eyes light up as Quayle digs his own grave. Is it glee? Is it contempt? It is shock that Quayle has willfully opened the door for the most famous political put down of all time? Take it away, Lloyd.

Bentsen’s slam was all for naught, ultimately, as Michael Dukakis whiffed during his debate with Vice-President Bush and Bush/Quayle were elected.

1992: President George Bush versus Governor Bill Clinton and Ross Perot

Bush was painted as a remote blue-blood who couldn’t connect with the average Americans who were then struggling after a downturn in the economy. So when he glanced at his watch during a townhall meeting debate and struggled to answer a question asking how the recession impacted him personally, some viewers got the impression he couldn’t be bothered and was eager to be anywhere else. No matter that the glance at his watch had been an intended gesture to remind the moderator that the garrulous Clinton had been allowed to continue after his agreed-upon allotted time had expired. Ultimately, it was the economy, stupid, and time ran out on Bush’s time in the White House.

2000: Governor George Bush versus Vice-President Al Gore

Al Gore was so exasperated with his opponent during the 2000 election that he couldn’t control himself during the debates, which were peppered with repeated audible sighs. His advisors forced him to view Saturday Night Live‘s sketch that captured all his petulance, so I’m including the same clip. The actual debate was only slightly less ridiculous. In a highly-contested election, Gore won the popular vote, but Bush became president after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Florida recount.

2008: Senator John McCain versus Senator Barack Obama

Was it Obama’s race? Was it his youth? Was it the perception that he hadn’t paid his dues? It was never exactly clear, but when John McCain pointed a finger at his opponent and referred to him only as “That one,” it felt rude, and reinforced the perception that McCain had a temper. Obama never seemed to lose his cool, and he won convincingly.

2012: Governor Rick Perry versus words

Perry was supposed to be the Republican savior when he entered the race, but his performances in the primary debates were historic — for all the wrong reasons. In one infamous moment, he vowed to eliminate three government departments: Commerce, Education, and… and…. Um. He couldn’t come up with the third department that he intended to abolish. Moderator John Harwood gave him time to collect himself, but that just made matters worse. It was like watching a man drown in a puddle. “Sorry. Oops,” was all he could come up with. Perry later dropped out of the race.

BONUS: President Jed Bartlet versus Governor Robert Ritchie

It’s a West Wing episode from 2002, but well worth including simply because this is what Mitt Romney and Barack Obama imagine in their most perfect dreams: taking the stage tonight and having the wit of Aaron Sorkin and the delivery of Martin Sheen.

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