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5 Great Presidential Debate Moments

        Culture | Elections

Reagan's Microphone Moment

Ronald Reagan's most memorable debate performance came during a debate that almost never happened. The location was Nashua, New Hampshire, and the debate was the last before the 1980 New Hampshire Republican primary. A local newspaper, the Nashua Telegraph, sponsored the debate, which was supposed to be a two-person face-off between the front-runners, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Days before the debate, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that the newspaper's sponsorship amounted to an illegal campaign contribution [source: Jamieson]. Bush didn't want to cough up half of the cost of the debate, so Reagan generously agreed to bankroll it himself. Additionally, he invited the four other Republican primary candidates to join the party.

The problem was that the Nashua Telegraph didn't want the other candidates on stage, and neither did the Bush campaign. When debate night arrived, tensions came to a head in a small high school gym packed with 2,000 restless spectators. Fifteen minutes after the debate was supposed to start, Bush took the stage followed by a visibly frustrated Reagan leading the four "uninvited" candidates [source: NBC News].

When the editor of the Nashua Telegraph, Jon Breen, started to explain the rules of the debate -- the four extra candidates wouldn't be allowed to answer questions, but only to give a closing statement -- Reagan interrupted him. Breen would have none of it, calling out, "Would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan's mic off for the moment?"

The result was chaos. The crowd roared its disapproval, and Reagan rose to his feet, momentarily looking as if he was going to slug the small-town editor. Instead, he picked up the mic. "Is this on?" At that moment, he had the audience in his palm of his hand. When Breen asked again that the mic be turned off, Reagan turned to him and famously barked, "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!" (Calling him the wrong name was doubly insulting.) The crowd erupted and the debate was over before it began.

Looking back on his Nashua moment, Reagan would later say, "I may have won the debate, the primary -- and the nomination -- right there." [source: University of Chicago Press].

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