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Debates lacked lasting zingers

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 7:47 a.m. CDT

ow will the 2012 debates rate in the campaign history books? Lots of political drama — but not a single breakout one-liner.

Sure, Internet wags had fun with Mitt Romney's comments about Big Bird and "binders of women," but neither will likely have the staying power of Lloyd Bentsen's devastating riposte to Dan Quayle in 1988: "You're no Jack Kennedy."

With the millions and millions spent on presidential campaigns, you'd think the candidates would be able to deliver a zinger that perfectly captures the moment — but it's harder than it looks.

"One characteristic of a memorable line is that it's simple," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric at the University of Pennsylvania.

The president's "horses and bayonets" jab may have delighted the Democratic base, but the line probably won't translate into pop culture — too much context required. And rehearsed quips that work in a stump speech are harder to drop into a debate: President Obama's "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back" didn't work because he bungled the delivery.

The best lines, Jamieson said, capture something that is widely believed to be true or dispatch a vulnerability. Quayle, in fact, was correct when he stated that he and JFK had the same level of political experience. But the little-known senator was dogged by the perception that he was wet behind the ears — and then crushed by Bentsen's now-famous putdown. (So famous that Joe Biden tried a version, less successfully, on Paul Ryan: "Oh, and now you are Jack Kennedy?")

Other long-lasting quotes: Ronald Reagan brushed aside criticism from Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale with his affable "There you go again" — which became the catchphrase of the 1980 election. Mondale scored his place in history by nailing Gary Hart's "new ideas" with a borrowed Wendy's slogan: "Where's the beef?"

But there's nothing memorable from this month's debates, said Karlyn Campbell, professor of political communication at the University of Minnesota. Great lines have some link to voters' personal experiences and can translate into their lives. "That's why 'binders of women' isn't going to stick around. It's just an awkward phrase."

Although debates now have an afterlife on YouTube, there's only a handful of great moments. . . and when you stop and think about it, it's not really surprising, said Campbell: "Guys like this are not great performers."

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