Politico posed a tantalizing question earlier this week: With Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney enjoying a post-debate surge in the polls and President Barack Obama seemingly on the ropes for the first time in the 2012 campaign, could Thursday night's vice-presidential debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden actually matter?
Alas, if past elections -- and our equally breathless musings about the potential consequence of previous vice-presidential debates -- are any guide, we shouldn't get our hopes up. In a 1996 study of debates between 1984 and 1992, political scientist Thomas Holbrook determined that "there is very little evidence that vice presidential debates do much at all to alter the political landscape" -- even in the case of Lloyd Bentsen famously telling challenger Dan Quayle that he was "no Jack Kennedy." In a 2008 survey, Gallup found that while presidential debates may have made the 1976 and 2004 elections more competitive, only in the tight races of 1960 and 2000 did the debates appear to have an impact on the outcome (other academic investigations have reached similar conclusions).
Still, vice presidential debates have produced their share of memorable foreign-policy moments. Here are the top six:
1976: Dole condemns "Democrat wars"
During the race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Republican vice presidential candidate Bob Dole raised eyebrows by slamming World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War as "Democrat wars" while debating Walter Mondale. "If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it'd be about 1.6 million Americans -- enough to fill the city of Detroit," he asserted. The remark didn't sit well with Mondale, who retorted that "Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight."
The statement "haunted us for a while," Dole later recalled. "People were calling me that night saying ‘boy, what a great job, you won this debate'.... [A]nd the next morning after the press picked this out as a mistake, it suddenly changed." In fact, the controversy surrounding the comment outlasted the campaign. "Bob Dole came across as an ass," columnist Debra Sunders declared when the Republican politician ran for president in 1996.