Hazards in a half century of presidential debates

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Weary and recovering from illness, Richard Nixon looked so bad in his TV debate with John Kennedy that his mom called afterward to see if he was all right. Forty years later, Al Gore loudly sighed, shrugged in exasperation and got in George W. Bush's face in a display of pique and impatience.

In presidential campaign debates, a slip of the tongue, an awkward gesture, style points and the seemingly spontaneous one-liner have provided the telling moments that shape elections and live on in history. The elder George Bush's words from 1992 may be forgotten. The fact that he looked at his watch, isn't.

More often than not the debates have been standoffs, not turning points. Debates have done more to reinforce trends and reputations than to change them.

But when two candidates go head to head live, you just never know.

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