Running for president in 1960, tanned, relaxed and made up for the lights and camera, John Fitzgerald Kennedy aced the first televised debate.
His opponent Richard Nixon looked grey in comparison, with no cosmetic reinforcement.
A representative survey of viewers overwhelmingly awarded Kennedy the upper hand, whereas the radio audience polled the opposite.
From now on, form and appearance would do battle with content.
Ronald Reagan had a Hollywood career under his belt when he went head to head with the upright incumbent Jimmy Carter, the final pre-election debate ratings eclipsed ten years of TV shows, and Reagan won a landslide.
He neutralised his challenger Walter Mondale in 1984 with this:
“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Debate planners worked intensely on strategy, for instance whether to stress specifics or to attack.
In 1996, when Bob Dole and President Bill Clinton duelled before the cameras, Clinton didn’t respond to accusations of scandal; he kept coming back to the economic upturn while he’d been in office.
Dole said: “There’s no doubt about it, that many American people have lost their faith in government. They see scandals almost on a daily basis.”
Yet Clinton even complimented the 73-year-old Dole as acting responsibly in a bipartisan compromise over Social Security (nine years earlier), and the 50-year-old kept his lead in the public opinion polls.
Not just factual error or forgetting would lose points, but body language.
President Bush Senior was criticised for looking at his watch in a debate; Al Gore was perceived as patronising.
Yet Bush the younger was forgiven for sometimes slipping up – all the way to the White House.
The candidate whose ratings are higher can usually afford to conduct himself defensively, keeping his cool, leaving the one who is trailing to take the risks, like Barack Obama with John McCain in 2008.