It’s not just the presidential candidates whose gaffes, one-liners, and attack lines go down in the political history books. We’ve seen skilled and nimble performances from a number of U.S. Senate candidates on the debate stage over the years.
For the campaign junkies, there’s often nothing better than watching the oratory gymnastics of political competitors who go for the jugular. While there have been some ugly Senate campaigns, it doesn’t get much darker for a political contest than when one of the hottest Senate races in the country has two candidates marred in scandal, drugs, sex, and dishonesty. That was the case in the 1994 Virginia Senate race.
The choice was between the lesser of two evils. The GOP had chosen Lt. Col. Oliver North, known entirely for his role in the 1985 Iran-contra scandal. The Democratic incumbent was also a war veteran and Lyndon B. Johnson’s son-in-law, Sen. Chuck Robb.
Robb had admitted to personal failings, including spending time in a New York City hotel room with a former Miss Virginia USA. Robb had also been accused of cocaine use and attending parties as governor of Virginia in the 1980s where cocaine was served, but he denied these allegations.
In their Sept. 6, 1994 debate, which included independent candidate and former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder (who dropped out weeks later), it was Wilder who challenged both North and Robb on the issue of character.
“You’ve been in the company of people who were convicted and sent away,” Wilder scolded Robb. “And you were warned by your own attorney general to stay away and you didn’t. So don’t tell me you’re going to stand up on your moral horse now.”
Wilder turned his fire on North, too, accusing him of knowing drug smugglers were involved in the Iran-contra operation.
North noted he had nothing to hide and said, “I’m the most investigated man on this planet.”
“There might be very good reasons for that to be the case,” Wilder responded.
That same year, and for the first time since his election to the Senate in 1962, Ted Kennedy met serious opposition in businessman Mitt Romney.
In their first debate, Kennedy accused Romney, a venture capitalist, of not providing healthcare to employees.
“If we have Jordan Marsh, and Filene’s, and Stop and Shop providing health insurance for their part-time workers, what’s wrong with Mr. Romney’s companies providing the same thing,” Kennedy asked.
Romney was ready and pounced on the opportunity to turn the tables on Kennedy.
“Senator, I’m sure you know that your workers who are part-time employees [at the Chicago Mercantile Market], don’t have health insurance there, don’t you,” Romney replied.
Romney later attacked Kennedy that his blind trusts were “not so blind.”
Kennedy hit back with one of the most remembered lines of the debate
“Mr. Romney, the Kennedys are not in public service to make money,” he said. “We’ve paid too high a price in our commitment to public service.”
Two years later, the junior senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, faced a strong challenge from the state’s popular Gov. Bill Weld. Weld had led Kerry through most of the summer and the two had agreed to seven debates. In the fifth one Kerry and Weld tangled with the one-liners.
In Kerry’s opening statement he warned the audience at historic Mechanics Hall, “My opponent tries to talk like a Democrat, but let me tell you he votes like a Republican.”
“Governor, let’s set the record straight once and for all. Your ad campaign that I’m soft somehow on what happens to our children and schools with respect to drugs is a mugging of the truth,” Kerry continued.
Weld fought back: “You accused me of distorting your record, but I couldn’t possibly make it any worse that it is.”
An aggressive Kerry remained on the offense for the rest of the debate.
“You talk out of both sides of your mouth in more ways than the Budweiser frogs,” Kerry said. “Governor, I’m surprised you’ll even talk about Medicare outside of the confessional.”
In what became the most expensive and nastiest Senate race in the country in 1998, three-term incumbent New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato was challenged by Congressman Charles Schumer. At their Oct. 24 debate in Schenectady, N.Y., D’Amato was confronted about using a yiddish slur to describe his opponent and his description of Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, as ”Jerry Waddler.”
‘This is one of a series of embarrassing incidents that we have had from the senator through his 18 years and of not owning up to the truth,” Schumer said. “Over and over Senator D’Amato has embarrassed us.”
D’Amato slammed Schumer for his voting attendance and accused him of being missing in action.
D’Amato – who referred to Schumer as ”Chuck,” while the Congressman called him ”Senator D’Amato” – tried to goad Schumer into discussing the issue.
”Did you miss 110 votes in Congress?” Mr. D’Amato demanded. ”Yes or no? Have I misstated the record? I’d like to know.”
Two years later when Hillary Clinton debated New York Congressman Rick Lazio for the retiring Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s open Senate seat, Lazio strode over to Mrs. Clinton’s podium with a pen and campaign pledge over soft money, urging her to sign it. The effect was one in which Lazio appeared chauvinistic and aggressive.
“Right here, here it is - Let’s sign it,” Lazio urged Clinton as he held the paper in front of her.
The move ultimately earned Lazio’s place in political history as an example of what not to do during a debate with a female opponent.
“On substance, it was right and on style and perception, it was a mistake, which I regret,” Lazio told Newsday in 2008.
Lazio’s stunt wasn’t the first time a Senate candidate crossed the podium divide to procure a pledge from their opponent. In 1988, Pete Dawkins attempted something similar in his second debate with incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg. The New Jersey Senate race went down in history as one of the most negative and mudslinging campaigns the state had ever seen.
Dawkins, a former Heisman Trophy winner and Brigadier general closed the debate by saying: “As for Pete Dawkins and the Dawkins Campaign, there will be no more personal attacks.”
Dawkins then turned to Lautenberg. “I call on you Frank, tonight, to join me and pledge to put an end to these personal attacks,” he said. “I call on you tonight to meet me halfway and to pledge from this point on that neither of us will launch anymore personal attacks. Will you agree, Frank?”
Dawkins strode across the stage and held out his hand to his rival. Lautenberg, reluctantly shook Dawkins hand, smiled, and proceeded to lace in to his opponent in his own closing remarks.
“I assume that with that handshake that Pete Dawkins took the statement off the board, that called this United States Senator, the people’s representative in New Jersey, a swamp dog,” Lautenberg said. “It’s a funny time to start making amends with this statement out there.”
In the great “coffee cake” debate of 1988, Herb Kohl, a grocery store chain executive running for retiring Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire’s seat, was accused of inconsistency by his Republican opponent, Susan Engeleiter, on wasteful defense contracts when she insisted Kohl himself was a defense contractor.
Engeleiter raised the issue in their debate claiming that Kohl’s grocery chain had sold coffee cakes to the military for $7.52 while selling coffee cakes in Kohls II Food Stores at $2.59.
Two days later Kohl called a press conference and appeared with a Kohls coffee cake in one hand and a military coffee cake sealed in gray tin in the other hand.
“Let’s see, this is a Kohls Food Store 15-ounce coffee cake costing $2.59 and this is a 50-ounce coffee cake costing $7.52,” he said while he openly compared the two.
He paused as he raised the military coffee cake in his right hand and gleefully announced “this is the better value!”
Photo: Mitt Romney, left, is pictured with late Sen. Ted Kennedy in a video segment during the first session of the DNC in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)