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  First Republican Presidential Primary Debate
TitleFirst Republican Presidential Primary Debate
Start Date/TimeJanuary 06, 1980 07:30pm
End Date/TimeJanuary 06, 1980 09:00pm
Last ModifiedChronicler - May 09, 2009 09:30pm
The first Republican presidential debate of 1980 was held in Iowa. Gov. Reagan, who was leading in the polls, chose to bypass the debate. Five of nine challengers participated: Bush, Anderson, Crane, Dole, and Connally. The debaters openly criticized Reagan for taking the state caucus for granted, which set the stage for a victory by George H.W. Bush. This was the first Republican primary debate since 1948.

With increasing interest in presidential debates, the Des Moines Register contacted the various candidates in the fall of 1979 to set the date for a debate prior to the Iowa caucus. The date chosen for the Republican debate was 1/5/1980 at 2:00 p.m. Central. In 12/1979, the national networks announced that they planned to carry the debate live. Former Gov. Connally wrote to the newspaper and complained that the Republican debate was planned for an afternoon, while the Democratic debate was planned for an evening. The paper explained that at first no one expected the debate to be carried on live national television; it switched the time of the Republican debate to 7:30 Central [New York Times, 12/10/1979].

A major topic of the debate was Pres. Carter's decision to stop grain shipments to the USSR. Carter made the announcement the day before the debate.

Quick Facts
When: 7:30-[9:30?] p.m. (Central), 1/5/1980
Where: Des Moines (IA) Civic Center
Moderator: unstated. Panel included Walter Meares (AP), George Anthan (Des Moines Register), and Richard Doak (Des Moines Tribune).
Audience size: undetermined. Carried live by PBS and broadcast later in the evening by CBS.
Topic: domestic and foreign policy
Transcript: the New York Times printed excerpts of the debate on 1/7/1980

Format: Not stated by the New York Times except that responses were limited to 2 minutes.

Setting: unstated in the NYT article

The Debate

Contrary to expectations, the debate was seen as a gentlemanly discussion of the issues (not a free for all). Due to recent events in Afghanistan, the hot topics were military preparedness and opposition to Pres. Carter's grain sales to the USSR.

Gov. Connally was notably less belligerent than he had been in the preceding week. He had been calling for a deadline for releasing the hostages in Teheran and actions to disrupt Iranian oil production. He did not mention these items but maintained his criticism of Carter's "weakness and appeasement." As one of only two candidates with an energy policy (Anderson being the other), Connally believed that increasing domestic production of oil and expanded use of coal and nuclear energy were critical to eliminating American's dependence on the Middle East.

Bush emphasized his resume, viewing the debate as his first opportunity to introduce himself. He followed Connally's theme of downplaying his earlier criticisms of Carter's comments about being "unhappy that the Russians had lied about Afghanistan."

Anderson gave the most impressive debate performance, partially because his policies were the most different. He believed that his proposal to add a 50ยข tax on each gallon of gas would enable him to balance the federal budget. He also planned to use the gas tax to reduce Social Security taxes.

Baker gave an impressive answer to the question on how the candidates differed from Reagan. As part of his economic message, he said "We've got to get over the temptation to think that we have no growth before us. I believe in growth, and I believe that we've got to reiterate our belief that we can create new wealth." He claimed to be the only candidate who had successfully started his own business.

In responding to a question on how to rescue the hostages in Teheran, Crane would only say "If any one of those Americans is in any way harmed, I think there must be some swift and very forceful retaliation from this country." Anderson wanted to cut off all telegraphic and cable connections to Iran as a first step. Connally restated his opinion that the US needed to establish permanent bases in the Middle East until we were no longer dependant upon its oil, which would give the USA more flexibility in responding to crises. Dole wanted to initiate a total trade embargo except for needed medical supplies.

The issue of Carter's decision to restrict grain sales to the USSR gave the Republican contenders something to unite on. Dole and Crane said that Carter was making midwest farmers the "scapegoat" for a weak foreign policy. Only Anderson supported Carter's policy change, which he described as Carter's first strong foreign policy decision.

The contenders also ridiculed Reagan's choice to bypass the debate. Reagan's choice was controversial, but Pres. Carter charted the same course of trying to limit his exposure by not debating his rivals. [NYT 1/7/1980]


The Record Herald and Indianola Tribune organized a focus group to watch the debate. The focus group believed that Anderson appeared to be "the most intelligent man on the panel - a very sharp and qualified person." Anderson's campaign noted a dramatic increase in media attention, donations, and volunteers in the following weeks [NYT 1/12/1980]. In addition to Anderson's showing, Bush appeared to have performed second best.

An almost immediate result of the debate was that Sen. Larry Pressler dropped out of the running on 1/8/1980. The Des Moines Register determined that Pressler was not mounting a significant campaign in the state, so it did not invite him to the debate. Pressler was the second Republican to drop out (after Lowell Weicker) [NYT 1/9/1980].

The Iowa caucus was held on 1/21/1980, over two weeks after the Republican primary debate and one day less than a year before Inauguration Day. Bush's strong organization and debate performance led to a 32-30% win over Reagan. Baker placed third with 15%, followed by Connally with 9%. After his loss, Reagan immediately changed his campaign strategy, dropping the advice of John Sears that he bypass primary debates. By concentrating his efforts on Iowa and ignoring other states in the meantime, Bush had gained what he termed his "Big Mo" or momentum, leading up to the New Hampshire primary [NYT 1/23/1980].

Republican primary debates of 1980: Second - [Link] , Third - [Link] , Fourth - [Link] , Fifth - [Link] , Sixth - [Link]

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