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Debates Have Gone the Way of the Penn McKee

September 24, 2008

We are entering into the critical debate phase of the 2008 presidential campaign with the first of three match-ups between John McCain and Barrack Obama scheduled to take place Friday at the University of Mississippi.

It is widely regarded that the first Kennedy-Nixon televised debate in 1960 ushered in the modern day concept that debate style will trump substance in presidential debating. In their debate, Kennedy looked cool and self-assured before millions of television viewers while Nixon came across as looking tired and nervous.

Prior to the debate Kennedy had prepped himself with his team of friends and advisors and took a relaxed attitude about it. Meanwhile, Nixon had sequestered himself alone in his Chicago hotel room to pour over his briefing materials and statistics.

But Nixon was also not feeling well on the night of the debate and had only been released from the hospital for a knee infection just two weeks earlier. The campaign trail had been grueling and he had lost five pounds since his release from the hospital. To make matters worse, on his way to the debate Nixon accidentally struck his knee again getting out of his car, causing further pain just before arriving at the television studio.

For those who listened to the presidential debate on the radio many thought Nixon had won - but for the millions tuned in to view the debate on television - Kennedy was the clear winner.

What few realize is that the 1960 debate was the second Kennedy-Nixon debate. The first occurred in 1947 when they were freshman Congressmen - they took to the stage to argue the merits of the Labor-Management Relations Act, known as the Taft-Hartley Act of 1948.

The debate took place before an audience in the ballroom of the Penn McKee Hotel in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Both men made the trip from Washington by train at the request of local Congressman Frank Buchanan. Nixon argued against the proposed legislation while Kennedy supported the labor-backed bill.

It was generally conceded that Nixon won the debate, although President Kennedy may have had the last word when he reportedly remarked later about his McKeesport experience "We both then went on to other things."

On Friday Obama will want to appear "Presidential" and assure the voters that he can handle the job of Commander-in-Chief. McCain will want to make sure he comes across as an agent of change while at the same time say nothing that could make him appear "out of touch" with voters.

This first debate could have the largest impact on the 2008 campaign since it should have the biggest television audience of the three scheduled debates. The vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin on October 2 in St Louis will also attract a large viewing audience and the pressure will be on Governor Palin to know the issues.

It’s now hard to imagine but not all recent presidential candidates agreed to debate. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson would not debate Barry Goldwater; Richard Nixon would not debate Hubert Humphrey in 1968; and Nixon also refused to debate George McGovern in 1972. President Carter in 1980 seriously considered not debating Ronald Reagan - which in hindsight - would have been a good strategy.

The McCain-Obama debates may not shift public opinion but voters want to see how they react to tough questions. These candidates have been campaigning for over a year and their positions are well known. Their goal will be to provide crisp clean answers that will sound right to the voters who have yet to make up their mind.

The days of lengthy issue-oriented debates like the one held on that spring evening in 1947 at the Penn McKee Hotel between Congressman Nixon and Congressman Kennedy are long gone - much like the hotel itself.