AllPolitics - Debates '96

1988 Presidential Debates


There were two general election Presidential debates in 1988. The first one was, by most everyone's account, uneventful. But the second debate, opening with CNN anchor Bernard Shaw's question to Michael Dukakis whether or not he would favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife, was a crucial moment in the 1988 campaign. The question was meant to give Dukakis an opportunity to show emotion, but he blew it, and answered in a wooden, lawyerly manner. Bush did not make any serious gaffes, and effectively labeled Dukakis as a "liberal." ( 640K QuickTime movie)

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 1

Date: September 25, 1988
Location: Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Site: Wake Forest University
Participants: George Bush (R), Michael Dukakis (D)
Moderator: Jim Lehrer, McNeil-Lehrer News Hour
John Mashek, The Atlanta Constitution
Ann Groer, The Orlando Sentinel
Peter Jennings, ABC News
90-minute debate with questions equally divided between international and domestic policy matters. Panelist question to candidate with a two-minute reply. Rebuttal from second candidate with a one-minute reply. Panelist follow-up question with two-minute response and one-minute rebuttal from second candidate. Closing remarks.


No news or anything unexpected occurred -- the candidates did not try to change the existing themes of the campaign. In fact, the lead story on ABC and CBS the next night was about Canadian Olympic athlete Ben Johnson's possible use of steroids.

Bush called Dukakis "too liberal" and noted his veto of a bill that would require teachers to lead the class in the Pledge of Allegiance. Dukakis assailed Bush for avoiding the drug crisis and for picking Dan Quayle as his running mate. Reagan's defense build-up, the role of government in delivering health care and the death penalty also were debated. A content analysis showed Dukakis focused on domestic issues such as health care, drugs, housing and the national debt. Bush focused on education and Dukakis' liberalism.

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 2

Date: October 13, 1988
Location: Los Angeles
Site: Pauley Pavilion, UCLA
Participants: George Bush (R), Michael Dukakis (D)
Moderator: Bernard Shaw, CNN
Ann Compton, ABC News
Margaret Warner, Newsweek magazine
Andrea Mitchell, NBC News


CNN's Bernard Shaw opened the debate with this question to Gov. Dukakis: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis responded, "No, I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We've done so in my own state." Dukakis went on to talk about the drop in Massachusetts' crime rate and segued into the need for international cooperation in the war against drugs.

The question was meant to give Dukakis an opportunity to show -- and the voters an opportunity to see -- the emotional side of a candidate dubbed by many as the "Ice Man." Shaw had said that the voters had a difficult time getting a "feeling fix" on Dukakis, and felt that only a very personal question could elicit an emotional response. (In fact, he feared that he might be criticized for asking a too-easy question.) But Dukakis' response did just the opposite. Dukakis' passionless response was the news out of the debate.

Bush didn't perform particularly well either, but he didn't have to after Dukakis' first response. The presidential polls did not move for the first few days after the debate, but they soon started moving in Bush's favor.

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