The first Republican presidential debate will be one of the first big chances most GOP candidates will have to make an impression on prospective voters, and that first impression could be remembered for years to come.
The debate will have many memorable moments as all the top candidates, except for former President Donald Trump, square off in Milwaukee. Ahead of the first primary debate of the 2024 cycle, here are some of the most memorable moments from previous presidential primary debates.
1980 Republican primary debate: “I am paying for this microphone”
Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan wanted other candidates included in a debate that his campaign was paying for, but the moderator wanted to keep the debate between Reagan and former CIA Director George H.W. Bush, leading to a memorable exchange.
When the debate was scheduled to begin, Reagan tried to explain he wanted the other candidates to be allowed to participate in the debate, leading Nashua Telegraph editor Jon Breen, who was moderating the debate, to talk over him.
Breen, having enough of the talking over, demanded the sound technician to turn off Reagan’s microphone. The request to silence Reagan’s microphone left the former governor angry, leading him to say into the microphone, “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” The moment garnered cheers from the crowd and was a standout moment in the 1980 Republican primaries despite it happening before the debate properly began.
2008 Democratic primary debate: “You’re likable enough”
During a Democratic primary debate in January 2008, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was asked what she had to say about voters who were considering supporting her but hesitated to back her over then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) because of the likability factor. Clinton responded by saying the question “hurt her feelings.”
“Well, that hurts my feelings,” Clinton said, garnering laughter from the crowd and apologies from the moderator.
“But I’ll try to go on. He’s very likable. I agree with that. I don’t think I’m that bad,” Clinton continued, to which Obama interrupted.
“You’re likable enough, Hillary,” Obama said.
“Thank you. I appreciate that,” Clinton responded.
2012 Republican primary debate: “Oops”
During a GOP primary debate, then-Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) touted how he would abolish three government agencies if he became president. He named the Department of Commerce and the Department of Education, but he was unable to remember the name of the third agency.
“And I will tell you, it is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education, and the … what’s the third one there? Let’s see,” the Texas Republican said.
As Perry tried to recall the third agency, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suggested the Environmental Protection Agency as the third agency, but when questioned by a moderator if that was the case, Perry admitted it was not.
“I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops,” Perry said.
2016 Democratic primary debate: “Damn emails”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) delivered one of the most memorable lines of the 2016 campaign when, during a Democratic primary debate in October 2015, he said that voters were “sick and tired” of hearing about fellow candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email scandal.
Clinton had been bogged down by controversy surrounding her use of a personal email server while she was secretary of state. She had been answering a question and mentioned the scandal, leading Sanders to interrupt.
“Let me say this. Let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right. And that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” Sanders said.
“Thank you,” Clinton said in response. “Me too. Me too.”
2016 Republican primary debate: Trump v. Bush
Throughout the 2016 Republican primary debates, Donald Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush clashed, with Trump typically getting the better of the exchanges. During the second presidential debate in September 2015, Bush insisted that Trump tried to lobby for casinos in Florida while he was governor, but Trump denied the claims.
“I did not,” Trump said. “Yes, you did,” Bush replied. “Totally false,” Trump said.
Bush continued to insist that Trump had attempted to get casino gambling in the Sunshine State, but Trump denied it, saying, “I promise, if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.”
Trump then commented on how Bush, whom he had nicknamed “low energy Jeb,” had more energy during the debate.
2020 Democratic primary debate: “That little girl was me”
During the first Democratic primary debate in the 2020 election cycle, then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) went after former Vice President Joe Biden based on his previous opposition to busing as a means to end racial segregation, invoking her own personal experience in the memorable debate attack.
“I will direct this at Vice President Biden. I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground, but I also believe — and it’s personal, and it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said.
“It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me,” she said.
Biden attempted to respond but cut himself off prematurely to say that his time was up. The moment was one of the breakouts from the debate, with Harris’s campaign selling merchandise around the line, “That little girl was me.”
The first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle is scheduled for Wednesday in Milwaukee at 9 p.m. EDT and will be televised by Fox News.
The debate will feature several of the top candidates, including Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Trump confirmed on Sunday that he would not attend the debate.
Original Location: Republican debate: Six of the best primary debate moments in history
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