TIME Debates

The First-Ever Vice-Presidential Debate Was 40 Years Ago. Here’s What Happened.

Walter Mondale, Fritz Mondale, Robert Dole, Bob Dole
AP Images Senator Walter Mondale, D-Minn., left, speaks as Senator Robert Dole, R-Kan., listens during the Vice Presidential debate in Houston, Oct. 15, 1976.

Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Walter Mondale met on Oct. 15, 1976, for the first-ever vice-presidential debate

As 2016 vice-presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence take to the debate stage on Tuesday night, their match-up will mark roughly 40 years since Oct. 15, 1976, when Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Walter Mondale met in what moderator James Hoge called “as far as we can tell … the first formal debate ever held between vice-presidential candidates.”

A couple of factors had combined in 1976 to make a VP debate seem like a natural next step for the election process.

For one thing, as Hoge pointed out to viewers at home, the preceding years had drawn attention to the importance of the vice president’s job, as Nixon’s resignation and Kennedy’s assassination had catapulted new leaders into office. For another, Republican incumbent Gerald Ford had made a particular point of emphasizing debates as part of the election process.

Though televised presidential debates had disappeared in the wake of the famous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, he decided to bring them back, issuing a public challenge to the Democratic nominee. “This year the issues are on our side, and I’m ready and eager to go before the American people and debate the issues face to face with Jimmy Carter,” he said in the course of accepting the nomination. It was not particularly surprising that, with all the attention to the idea, the VP nominees decided to get in on the action.

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And, as TIME reported following the debate, their decision to participate shed light on how a vice president could be a key part of a White House campaign, not just a back-up:

They started with smiles and Senator Robert Dole saying that he hoped it would be a “fun evening.” They ended with bitter exchanges and Senator Walter Mondale calling his opponent a “hatchet man.” The debate last week between the two vice-presidential candidates—the first such session in the nation’s history—turned out to be a tart and often engrossing display of political theater, a duel between two evenly matched men whose debating skills had been sharply honed during the wars on Capitol Hill. Both Mondale and Dole sometimes articulated the views of their top bananas more concisely and with better effect than Jimmy Carter and Jerry Ford had been able to do during their debates.

…As the debate showed, Dole and Mondale are a bright pair of second bananas—hard-working, tough, loyal, reasonably reconciled to their status as glorified campaign gofers. They make an interesting contrast—old colleagues and old opponents from the Senate, Dole to the right of Ford, Mondale to the left of Carter.

Soldiering on, Dole has hit 36 states, Mondale 40. They bend the ear of everyone who will listen, undismayed by the fact that a Harris poll released earlier this month showed that many voters did not really know what they stood for—45% in the case of Mondale, 50% in the case of Dole.

Dole has managed to remain unruffled despite occasionally haphazard scheduling. Once he was stranded at a Kentucky horse farm for an hour, talking to a single man—the manager. The candidate tries to shrug it off. Asked if he had a campaign plan, Dole once said, “No, I just have an airplane.”

The 2016 VP debate will be held Tuesday evening in Farmville, Va.

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