The national spotlight landed on Hartford, Connecticut on the evening of October 6, 1996, as presidential candidates Bob Dole and Bill Clinton held the first presidential debate of the campaign season at the Bushnell Theater. Thanks in part to the influence of Connecticut senators Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman, the city of Hartford won the right to host the debate over the much larger city of St. Louis.
The debate, moderated by PBS’ Jim Lehrer, was the first of two presidential debates scheduled that year, and began promptly at 9:00pm. The Republican candidate, former senator Bob Dole, hoped to diminish Clinton’s sizable lead in the polls with a strong debate performance and fiercely criticized the incumbent president’s record on the domestic economy, foreign policy, crime prevention, and the War on Drugs. Clinton, who had already established a reputation as a savvy debater, parried Dole’s criticisms with equal ferocity.
For 90 minutes the two men went back and forth in front of a live television audience of millions of Americans, at times viciously attacking the other’s policy platforms — but never each other. When Lehrer asked Dole if he could think of any significant issues regarding Clinton “in the more personal area” that were relevant to the election, Dole demurred, replying: “I don’t like to get into personal matters. As far as I’m concerned, this is a campaign about issues. It’s about my vision for America and about his liberal vision for America. And not about personal things.” Later on, Clinton similarly refused to take the bait when asked about Dole’s character, stating, “I like Senator Dole, you can probably tell we like each other. We just see the world in different ways. And you folks out there are going to have to choose who you think is right.”
The heated — but ultimately civil — tone of the debate did not go unnoticed by the press: the next day, CNN reported, “For much of the 90 minutes that [Bob Dole] and Bill Clinton debated on Sunday night, the two agreed as much as they disagreed.” While partisan pundits lamented the opportunity for their respective candidates to score easy political points by attacking the other’s character, many other Americans appreciated the mutual tone of respect exhibited by Clinton and Dole during the Hartford debate. A rare victory for political civility was won at the Bushnell Theater, on this day in Connecticut history.
Jonathan Rabinovitz, “Campaign Debate Gives Hartford An Opportunity to Promote Itself,” New York Times