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11.10.11

7 Worst Presidential-Debate Blunders (Video)

Rick Perry may have forgotten an important government agency during Wednesday’s debate, but he’s not the first politician to space out under the spotlight. From Nixon’s sweaty television debut to Palin’s memory lapse, here are some other presidential-debate blunders.

‘Oops,’ There It Is

Anything, say anything! Viewers held their breath as they waited for Gov. Rick Perry to come up with the third government agency he said he’d abolish. He paused, laughed, checked his notes, and even looked desperately at Ron Paul for the answer, but to no avail. He had nothing. When asked by the moderator if he could name the third agency, Perry simply said, “I can’t, the third one I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

Zombie McCain

Sure, sticking out your tongue is bad manners, but it’s also a great way to get attention. Or so it was in the case of Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008. After the third presidential debate with Sen. Barack Obama, McCain stuck out his tongue when he accidentally walked the wrong way on the stage. Photographers snapped the moment, and the freeze frame was lovingly titled “Zombie McCain.” For weeks, Photoshoppers superimposed other images next to McCain, making for some very tongue-in-cheek pictures.

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Nixon’s Got a Face for Radio

Is it possible to make a gaffe simply by agreeing to appear on television? In the case of Richard Nixon, the answer is yes. In the first televised presidential debate, John F. Kennedy’s tan, boyish good looks made poor Nixon look like his sweaty older uncle. While radio listeners said Nixon won the debate, the much bigger population of TV viewers gave Kennedy the edge—and eventually the presidency.

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The Letter of the Day Is 'M'

While answering a question on military involvement overseas, Gov. Sarah Palin repeatedly referred to a man named McClellan. No one knows who that is, but we can only assume she meant McKiernan. As in Gen. David McKiernan, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In her defense, both names start with the letter M.

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Soviet Showdown

This one’s almost too hard to watch. During a 1976 presidential debate against Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford declared, “There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, and there will never be under a Ford administration.” There’s one small problem with this statement—it was completely false. Ford continued to defend his statement even after being challenged by the moderator, putting the nail in the coffin of his presidential campaign.

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When Laughing at Yourself Backfires

You only get one chance to make a first impression. But after the 1992 VP debate, Adm. James Stockdale was begging for a second. During his introduction, Stockdale famously began by saying, “Who am I, why am I here? I’m not a politician, everybody knows that …” This moment of honesty—followed by his unfocused performance during the debate—led voters to believe that Stockdale was in over his head. His joke tanked, and instead he became a national punchline.

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Next Time, Try a Little Tenderness

Asked in a debate during the 1988 campaign if he would stand for the death penalty if his own wife had been brutally murdered, Gov. Michael Dukakis responded “no,” in a well-practiced and unemotional response. His coldness turned off some voters and may have cost him the election. In the words of Otis Redding, maybe Dukakis should have “tried a little tenderness.”

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