Gov. Reagan and Bush debated in Nashua NH; this was the third of six debates in the Republican primary season. The debate became the most important one during the primaries. With the Reagan campaign sponsoring the debate, Reagan asked to include four Republican contenders who had not been invited. In a famous exchange at the beginning of the event, Reagan replied to a call to cut off his microphone with "I am paying for this microphone." With this debate, the famous "11th Commandment" about not criticizing other Republicans fell by the wayside. The debate, coming just three days before the New Hampshire primary, is credited with being the point at which GHW Bush's "Big Mo" ended and Reagan began cruising to the nomination.
After the second debate, Bush's "Big Mo" continued. As the front runner, however, he was coming under additional media attention. In an interview, Bush said that a nuclear war could be "winnable" [New York Times, 2/23/1980], which was widely repeated thereafter. Still, his numbers surged. A New York Times/CBS News poll showed that nationwide, Reagan led with 33% to Bush's 24% [New York Times, 2/26/1980]. Bush took a narrow lead in New Hampshire.
Just prior to the debate, the FEC changed rules for sponsorship of political events to outlaw the use of corporate funding. With the debate in jeopardy, the Reagan campaign gave the $3,500 needed for the debate to be held. At the time, the fact that the Reagan campaign was now sponsoring the event did not seem important.
When: evening of 2/23/1980
Where: High School gymnasium, Nashua NH; not carried live on television but was broadcast on a local radio station
Moderator: Jon Breen, executive editor, Nashua Telegraph. Panel: not reported by the New York Times
Audience size: 2,000 present; unknown radio audience
Topics: Foreign and domestic policy
Sponsor: Nashua Telegraph/Reagan Campaign
Transcript: not available.
Format: Questions and answers; closing statements
Setting: Three tables draped with yellow tablecloths were arranged on a stage in front of a blue curtain with a sign that read "Nashua Telegraph Presidential Forum." Breen sat in the center, with Reagan to the audience's left and Bush to the right.
Immediately before the debate, Reagan, Bush, and Breen met in a side room to discuss whether Reagan, now the debate sponsor, could invite other candidates to participate. The discussion went on for 30 minutes, during which time the 2,000 people in the audience took photographs of themselves with media anchors such as John Chancellor and Walter Cronkite.
The debate began with Breen taking his seat. He described the back room discussion as "a boxing match" in a tone that the New York Times described as sour. Breen had agreed to allow the four other candidates to make closing statements but not answer questions. The six candidates took the stage: in order from the audience's left to right, Reagan, Anderson, Baker, Dole, Crane, and Bush. [Connally was out of state at the time]. The presence of the four second tier contenders set the stage for the most memorable part of the entire debate, which occupied just two minutes of the entire event.
Reagan, who was now the sponsor of the debate, wanted the four others to be allowed to participate. Joe Breen made an announcement about how the debate would proceed and then called for the first question to Bush rather than allowing Reagan to make an announcement as previously agreed on. As Reagan attempted to speak, Breen asked "would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan's mike off." The crowd loudly booed Breen, and Reagan stood to leave. Reagan then picked up the microphone, and once he discovered that it was still active, he tried to continue. Breen interrupted again, calling for Reagan's microphone to be cut off. Reagan turned to him and said "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green [sic]." The crowd stood and cheered for 30 seconds. The four non-debaters, standing behind Breen, clapped while Bush sat and observed silently. Reagan continued, "I volunteered to have our campaign pay for this debate. I felt that as technical sponsor of the debate, I had some right. I felt that we should make it a debate of all the candidates." Having made his point, the four non-debaters (temporarily dubbed the Nashua Four) agreed to leave. Reagan walked them to the edge of the stage and shook their hands as they left.
Upon leaving the stage, the Nashua Four complained bitterly to reporters. Baker said Bush was trying "to reinstitute closed-door politics," and the following day said it was "the rawest political act I've seen in 15 years in politics." Dole said that Bush "stiffed us, with the help of the paper," adding the following day that the four non-debaters were treated like "second-class citizens." [NYT 2/24-25/1980]
After the initial fireworks, the debate was a rather solemn affair. The two candidates mostly repeated things they had said in previous debates and press conferences. Reagan had a complaint about Bush's assessments of the strength of the Soviet Union when he was the CIA director. Bush was asked if he thought Reagan too old to serve, and he replied "No, I don't." When it was Reagan's turn to answer the same question, he said, "I agree with George Bush."
The major policy difference discussed was Reagan's proposed 30% tax cut. Bush agreed that a tax cut was needed to stimulate the economy and thus reduce inflation and unemployment, but he thought that 30% was too much. When asked how they would deal with the hostage situation, Bush said that he had no "quick fix" and supported President Carter. Reagan said that a deadline should be set for the release of the hostages but did not say what the consequences of ignoring the deadline should be.
The audience, which cheered and booed frequently throughout the debate, gave its second most enthusiastic response when Reagan made a statement about "godless Communist tyranny" in Asia.
Bush knew immediately that the debate had been a setback for his campaign. He repeated over and over that the newspaper had set up the debate and that he had not played a role in keeping the second tier contenders out. While limiting the debate to himself and Reagan was his first choice, the newspaper made the final decision regardless of his opinion. [NYT 2/24/1980] Bush's campaign staff was irate. Former NH Gov. Hugh Gregg said the team felt that the second tier contenders had decided to gang up on Bush. "Our people are pretty mad. We feel we were sandbagged" [NYT 2/25/1980].
Reagan said after the debate that it was a "fiasco." He didn't know why Bush "didn't want to meet with the other candidates. But that's something he will have to explain." [NYT 2/25/1980]
The debate was the first of Reagan's masterful debate performances. The second tier of candidates appreciated Reagan's attempt to get them into the debate, and in the following three days, they mercilessly hammered Bush while ignoring Reagan. The media, having identified Bush as the new front runner, ran the film clip shown above throughout the weekend. These events set the stage for an unexpectedly wide Reagan win with 50% to just 23% for Bush; Baker placed third with 12% and was the only second tier candidate to pass 10%.