The final debate of the Republican presidential primaries was held between Reagan and Bush on 4/23/1980.
The 6th and final Republican primary debate of 1980 was held in Texas prior to the all-important primary there.
The day before the debate, Bush had won the Pennsylvania primary by eight percentage points. Bush's victory was the result of three important factors. First, with Rep. John B. Anderson out of the race, the 12% of Pennsylvania Republicans who had supported him split for Bush by a 3:1 margin [NYT 4/23/1980]. Second, Bush emphasized that he was a moderate Republican in Pennsylvania; exit polls showed that this was a major influence on voters [NYT 4/23]. Third, Reagan was quickly approaching the statutory limit on primary campaign spending [NYT 4/24]. This meant that the Reagan campaign had to make careful decisions about where to spend money in the remaining primary and caucus states. At this point, Reagan could spend $3.7 million more, while Bush could spend $5 million more.
Discussions of the remaining primaries were mostly academic, however. Reagan had 607 delegates to just 126 for Bush [NYT 4/24]. Furthermore, Reagan was almost assured of 12 more primary victories, with only nine competitive states remaining. If Reagan could win the Texas primary, Bush would be locked below 50% of the delegates. Bush's strategy was to use his monetary advantage to win Texas, with hopes of making additional states competitive and somehow prevent Reagan from collecting 50% of the delegates. It was a daunting challenge.
When: evening of 4/23/1980 (one hour long but time not specified in news report)
Where: Houston Civic Center
Moderator: Howard K. Smith
Audience size: unknown. The debate aired on PBS stations from 11:10 to 12:10 that evening.
Topics: Foreign and domestic policy
Sponsor: League of Women Voters
Transcript: not available.
Format: Questions and answers
Setting: Three blue podiums were arranged on a stage (blue carpet) in front of a light blue curtain with a sign that read "League of Women Voters 1980 Presidential Forum." Smith stood behind the center podium, with Bush to the audience's left and Reagan to the right. On the front of the podiums used by Reagan and Bush were the logo of the LWV.
Bush and Reagan shake hands before the debate. Photo copyright AP.
As always, Reagan walked over to Bush before the debate began and shook hands. This touch had not been part of presidential debates before 1980, but Reagan is rarely credited with introducing this element of civility to debates. It is possible this contributed to Bush's reluctance to attack Reagan during the debate, as the commentators speculated was his best strategy.
Smith began the debate by asking the candidates if they would agree to a series of four debates in the fall to be sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Both agreed. Bush joked "I'd love to debate in the Rose Garden," a reference to Pres. Carter's earlier statement that he would not leave the White House while the hostages were still in captivity in Iran.
The debate then turned to domestic policy. Smith asked Bush about his new compromise proposal of limited tax and spending cuts to balance the budget. Bush called it a "supply side" tax cut of $20 billion, half of which would be targeted for individuals and the other half for businesses. He believed that his proposal would help reduce inflation, boost investor confidence, and lead to increased employment. Bush stated that Reagan's proposed tax cut would amount to $70-90 billion and would "risk exacerbating the deficit." He pointed out that Arthur Laffer, the economist who had written about the theory that tax cuts stimulated the economy, was not sure that the idea would work. Bush believed that Reagan's proposals would boost inflation from 18%, where it was at the time of the debate, to 30%. Reagan defended his proposal and suggested that Bush was offering a plan that was too similar to Pres. Carter's proposals.
The following video on YouTube includes the exchange about taxes and the deficit. Note that both men used rather imprecise figures during the discussion.
Note: the date at the beginning of the video is off by one day.
Bush took a rather hawkish view towards Iran. He recommended that Pres. Carter "give very serious consideration" to placing mines in the Persian Gulf along the coast of Iran to retard exports. Both Reagan and Bush agreed that the Soviet Union was unable to help Iran and would not likely challenge American attempts to escalate the tension in an effort to secure the release of the hostages.
Smith asked Reagan if he might consider choosing Bush as his vice presidential running mate. Reagan smiled and said "whoever I would pick would have to agree with the Kemp-Roth tax bill." Reagan saw the bill as a means of slowing the increase in taxes on individuals, but Bush believed that the bill would retard balancing the budget, which he wanted to accomplish before enacting additional tax cuts. Reagan's answer seemed to eliminate Bush from the running, but in a press conference afterwards, Reagan said that he had not ruled Bush out as a running mate [NYT 4/24/1980].
As stated earlier, Reagan's goal was to soften Bush's support in Texas, which was scheduled to hold its Republican primary the following week. His financial situation was nearly in crisis, as he was not able to run television ads in Texas while Bush flooded the Texas stations with approximately $500,000 of ads. In the end, however, Reagan was successful; he won the all-important Texas primary with 51% of the vote and 61 of the 80 delegates at stake. This victory made it virtually impossible for Bush to win the nomination outright. As Reagan was now practically ensured of the nomination, no further debates were held.