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2004 United States presidential debates

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The United States presidential election debates were held in the 2004 presidential election. Three debates were held between Republican incumbent George W. Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry, the major candidates, and one debate was held with their vice presidential running mates, incumbent Dick Cheney and John Edwards. All four debates were sponsored by the non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which has organized presidential debates since its establishment in 1987.

The vice presidential debate was held on October 5 at Case Western Reserve University. The presidential debates were held on September 30 at the University of Miami, October 8 at Washington University in St. Louis, and October 13 at Arizona State University, ahead of the November 2 Election Day. Different moderators and debate formats were used in each debate.

An alternative was proposed by the Citizens' Debate Commission, but was not carried out. There were several third-party candidate debates also held independently from the CPD-sponsored debates. The debates were the latest in a series of presidential debates first held during the 1960 presidential election and held every four years since the 1976 election.

Post-debate polls generally suggested that the 2004 presidential debates were a positive factor for John Kerry's candidacy, as CNN/USA Today/Gallup immediate post-debate polls showed that Kerry clearly won the first and third debates in the eyes of the American television audience, and he tied with Bush in the second. In the follow-up polls taken days after the first two debates, Kerry's perceived positive performance in the debates increased, so that the public then saw Kerry, rather than Bush, as the winner of all three debates.[1]

Participant selection

According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the predetermined criteria for selecting candidates to participate in its 2004 presidential debates are based on evidence of eligibility as defined in Article Two of the United States Constitution), evidence of ballot access, and evidence of electoral support based on national public opinion polls.

Participants must have appeared on enough state ballots to have at least a mathematical chance of securing the Electoral College majority needed to win the election. While several third-party candidates met the eligibility and ballot access criteria, none had the support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate based on the average of five selected national public opinion polling organizations. The criteria also specified that invitations to the CPD's vice-presidential debate would be extended to the running mates of the candidates participating in the first presidential debate.

Only President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator John Kerry met the CPD selection criteria for any of the presidential debates. As a result, only Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards met the criteria for the vice presidential debate.

On October 1, 2004, the Arizona Libertarian Party (AZLP) filed suit against the Commission on Presidential Debates and Arizona State University in the Superior Court of Arizona for Maricopa County regarding the staging of the third presidential debate. They contested that the debate, to be held on the grounds of and partially funded by a state university, constituted an illegal in kind campaign donation because it excluded Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian candidate. (Only Bush, Kerry, and Badnarik had ballot access in Arizona.) In the complaint the Arizona Libertarian Party alleged that ASU was "making a donation to two individual campaigns [Bush and Kerry] through the Commission on Presidential Debates as a conduit, in violation of the Arizona Constitution's prohibition on making gifts or donations to individuals or corporations."

Superior Court Judge F. Pendleton Gaines III issued an order to show cause for the president of ASU and for the director of the CPD to appear in court for a hearing on October 12, a day before the scheduled debate. Gaines denied a restraining order on the grounds of laches and that there was a sufficient public purpose for the debate, but also ruled that the AZLP could continue to pursue damages for any violations to their constitutional rights.

The Arizona debate nonetheless proceeded on October 13.

On October 8, at the second debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Badnarik and another third-party nominee, Green candidate David Cobb, were arrested in a civil disobedience action after crossing a police line outside the debate venue to protest their exclusion from the debate. Badnarik said he was attempting to serve the order to show cause; both candidates were released after being ticketed for trespassing and refusing a reasonable order from a policeman.[2][3][4]

Presidential debates memorandum of understanding

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Bush 2004 campaign and the Kerry 2004 campaign, covering in minute detail all aspects of the presidential candidate debates held between the two candidates was created. It was 32 pages long and dated September 20, 2004.

The Citizens' Debate Commission (CDC) and others were instrumental in getting the campaigns to publish the MOU in advance of the debates. One of the commissioners of the CDC, George Farah, has written about the earlier debate MOUs in the 2004 tome No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates.[5]

Debate schedule

2004 United States presidential election debates
 No. Date & Time Host Location Moderator Participants
 P  Participant.   N  Non-invitee.  
Republican Democratic
George W. Bush
of Texas
John Kerry
of Massachusetts
Thursday, September 30, 2004

9:00 – 10:30 p.m. EDT[6]

University of Miami Coral Gables, Florida Jim Lehrer of PBS P P
Friday, October 8, 2004

9:00 – 10:30 p.m. EDT[6]

Washington University in St. Louis St. Louis, Missouri Charles Gibson of ABC P P
Wednesday, October 13, 2004

9:00 – 10:30 p.m. EDT[6]

Arizona State University Tempe, Arizona Bob Schieffer of CBS P P
2004 United States vice presidential debate
 No. Date & Time Host Location Moderator Participants
 P  Participant.   N  Non-invitee.  
Republican Democratic
Vice President
Dick Cheney
of Wyoming
John Edwards
of North Carolina
VP  Tuesday, October 5, 2004

9:00 – 10:30 p.m. EDT[6]

Case Western Reserve University Cleveland, Ohio Gwen Ifill of PBS P P

Originally, the CPD specified that the first debate would be focused on domestic policy and the third focused on foreign policy. Those terms were changed in an announcement by the CPD on September 24, after it had reviewed the terms of the MOU. The CPD agreed that foreign affairs and homeland security would be the primary topic for the first debate and domestic and economic policy will be the primary topic of the third debate. More broadly, it also agreed to make a "good faith effort" to accommodate the rest of the terms of the MOU.

The September 24 announcement, which was released in the format of a copy of a letter sent to the two campaigns, also noted CPD's pleasure at the willingness of the two campaigns to participate in the second, "town meeting"-style debate, yet was ambiguous about just what had been agreed to.

Originally, the CPD had announced that questions for the second debate would come from undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization from the standard metropolitan statistical area surrounding the host city. This had been the policy followed for the 1992, 1996, and 2000 debates. But the September 24 letter to the two candidates did not comment on this; instead, it noted that campaign representatives can discuss participant selection methodology with Dr. Frank Newport of Gallup in order to resolve any open issues. One such issue was that the MOU specified that half the questions be asked by "soft Kerry supporters" and half by "soft Bush supporters," though what is meant by those terms was not made clear.


For 2004, each debate lasted ninety minutes, included a live audience, had no opening statements, could have included follow-up questions from the moderator and ended with closing statements of two minutes.

September 30: First presidential debate (University of Miami)

First presidential debate
Date(s)September 30, 2004 (2004-09-30)
VenueUniversity of Miami
LocationCoral Gables, Florida
ParticipantsGeorge W. Bush
John Kerry
Moderator(s)Jim Lehrer of PBS

This debate is the most well known of the three debates, because of the "You forgot Poland" incident, and the bulge controversy.

The debate was held in the Convocation Center of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

Jim Lehrer of PBS' The NewsHour posed nine questions for each candidate.

Video stream

Post-debate poll

62.5 million people tuned into the debates, an increase of just over 35 percent from 2000.


Bush's suit bulge

A bulge in the back of Bush's suit jacket during this debate triggered rumors that he was "wired" with a radio receiver, presumably to receive instructions from his strategists.[7] Contributing to the rumors was the perception that, at one point, Bush stated "Let me finish" in response to no apparent interruption and when he still had time on the clock, and some long pauses by Bush before he began answering a question. Others dismissed these accusations, saying that the "Let me finish" was a response to a gesture that Lehrer made, and the pauses were a result of Bush gathering his thoughts before responding. The story gained momentum on the Internet throughout the remaining debates, with some websites devoted exclusively to the issue, often referred to as the "Bush bulge" or "Bush wired" story. Comedy talk show hosts had fun with "Bulgegate" jokes.

White House officials initially claimed that the bulge was a "wrinkle in the fabric," and that Bush was not wearing a bullet-proof vest, as many conjectured. Bush's tailor later said that the bulge was nothing more than a pucker along the jacket's back seam, according to the Seattle Times. After the election, unidentified sources in the Secret Service told The Hill that Bush had been wearing a bullet-proof vest and that campaign handlers had not admitted it earlier for security reasons.[8]

Some reports suggested that the device was a portable defibrillator Bush supposedly began wearing after a fainting episode in January 2002 that was attributed to choking on a pretzel.[9]

A photo imaging scientist at NASA, Dr. Robert M. Nelson, applied photo enhancement techniques to images of Bush at each of the three debates.[10] He concluded that Bush was "obviously wearing something—probably a receiver of some kind—under his jacket for each debate."[11] Nelson sent his evidence to The New York Times, which prepared an investigative report on the matter, but it was killed by editors, one of whom later explained that the story did not make the cut because it was mere "speculation"; a reporter on the Times science desk disagreed.[12] The story received some coverage, for example in Salon, Mother Jones and Extra! magazines.

In 2020, NBC News referred to the 2004 microphone earpiece allegations as a "conspiracy theory" and likened the allegations to unfounded right-wing claims that Hillary Clinton wore a microphone in a 2016 debate, or that Joe Biden wore an earpiece in a 2020 debate.[13]

"You forgot Poland"

See also: Polish involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq

During the debate John Kerry accused Bush of having failed to gain international support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying "... when we went in, there were three countries: Great Britain, Australia and the United States. That's not a grand coalition. We can do better." Bush, who had used Poland earlier in the debate as an example of the international presence in Iraq, replied by saying "Well, actually, he forgot Poland. And now there's 30 nations involved, standing side by side with our American troops."[14] Paraphrased as "You forgot Poland", the term became a popular catchphrase among Bush detractors, who saw it as a humorously petty rebuttal of Kerry's original point. Though Bush had originally claimed that over 40 nations were supporting the invasion, only four nations (specifically, the four mentioned) had actually contributed over 1,000 troops – not counting the post-Saddam Iraqi police and security forces, who lost significant numbers in the Iraqi insurgency.

October 5: Vice presidential debate (Case Western Reserve University)

Vice presidential debate
Date(s)October 5, 2004 (2004-10-05)
VenueCase Western Reserve University
LocationCleveland, Ohio
ParticipantsDick Cheney
John Edwards
Moderator(s)Gwen Ifill of PBS


The only vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards was held at the Veale Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. The debate attracted a large audience, as 43.6 million people tuned in, nearly as many as had watched the presidential debates from 2000.

Moderator Gwen Ifill of the Public Broadcasting Service posed a total of 20 questions to the candidates.

Video stream

Notable exchanges

Though the debate largely focused on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Economy and Gay Marriage,[15] media coverage focused on a few key exchanges between the two candidates.[16] Cheney told Edwards, referring to his inexperience, that "the first time I met you was tonight." And Edwards pointedly referred to Cheney's gay daughter, asking whether Cheney was "...willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter?"[17]

Post-debate poll

CBS News interviewed a nationally representative sample of 178 uncommitted debate-watchers. The sample was of voters who are either undecided about whom to vote for or who have a weak preference that could be changed. Of the group 41 percent said Edwards won the debate, 28 said Cheney won, and 31 percent thought it was a tie. Both uncommitted men and uncommitted women preferred Edwards.[18] A separate poll of 1000 likely voters found that 43 percent believed Cheney won while 37 percent felt Edwards did better. Moreover, after the debate 47 percent said that Cheney was "very qualified" to assume the responsibilities of president (a seven percent rise), while only 25 percent said the same of Edwards (no change).[19]

October 8: Second presidential debate (Washington University in St. Louis)

Second presidential debate
Date(s)October 8, 2004 (2004-10-08)
VenueWashington University in St. Louis
LocationSt. Louis, Missouri
ParticipantsGeorge W. Bush
John Kerry
Moderator(s)Charles Gibson of ABC


The debate was held at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Charles Gibson mediated the town hall session, which consisted of prospective voters reading questions preselected by Gibson to the candidates.

Video stream


Bush attempted to deflect criticism of what was described as his scowling demeanor during the first debate, joking at one point about one of Kerry's remarks, "That answer almost made me want to scowl".[20]

When asked about possible appointments to the Supreme Court, Bush replied he would not pick the type of judge who would support the Dred Scott decision. Because that case dealt with slavery, abolished in the United States almost 150 years earlier, commentators such as Timothy Noah thought the President's comment was aimed at anti-abortion voters who see "Dred Scott" as code for Roe v. Wade. Noah believed Bush was saying he would appoint Justices who opposed legal abortion.[21]

October 13: Third presidential debate (Arizona State University)

Third presidential debate
Date(s)October 13, 2004 (2004-10-13)
VenueArizona State University
LocationTempe, Arizona
ParticipantsGeorge W. Bush
John Kerry
Moderator(s)Bob Schieffer of CBS


The final debate was held in the Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium at Arizona State University.[22]

Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News posed 20 total questions to the candidates.

Third-party candidate debates


  1. ^ Saad, Lydia (15 October 2004). "Do Debates Affect Presidential Contests?". Gallup. Gallup. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  2. ^ [1] Archived February 20, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "Debates-2008 Presidential Campaign". Retrieved 2010-05-24.
  4. ^ "Libertarians Win a Hearing in Debate Case - October 11, 2004 - The New York Sun". Retrieved 2010-05-24.
  5. ^ No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates (2004), ISBN 1-58322-665-6.
  6. ^ a b c d "CPD: 2004 Debates". Retrieved 2020-10-05.
  7. ^ "Americas | Bush's bulge stirs media rumours". BBC News. 2004-10-09. Retrieved 2010-05-24.
  8. ^ [2] Archived April 8, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ "PHOTOS Show George W. Bush Seriously Ill Physically". Houston Indymedia. Archived from the original on 2010-03-28. Retrieved 2010-05-24.
  10. ^ "Images from the Three Debates". Archived from the original on 2008-12-01. Retrieved 2018-07-09.
  11. ^ "Was Bush Wired? Sure Looks Like It". Archived from the original on 2009-01-25. Retrieved 2018-07-09.
  12. ^ Lindorff, Dave (2004-11-04). "The Emperor's New Hump". Retrieved 2010-05-24.
  13. ^ Collins, Ben (2020). "Coordinated push of groundless conspiracy theories targets Biden hours before debate". NBC News. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  14. ^ "Transcript of the first Bush-Kerry presidential debate". Commission on Presidential Debates. 2004-09-30. Archived from the original on 2006-10-13. Retrieved 2006-12-07.
  15. ^ "Cheney, Edwards Trade Barbs at VP Debate". Fox News. 25 March 2015. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  16. ^ Kaiser, Robert. "Vice Presidential Debate Analysis". Washington Post. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  17. ^ "Full Transcript of the Debate Between the Vice Presidential Candidates in Cleveland". New York Times. 5 October 2004. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  18. ^ Bootie Cosgrove-Mather (2004-10-05). "Uncommitteds Tab Edwards Winner". CBS News. Retrieved 2010-05-24.
  19. ^ "Voters Say Cheney Won Debate, Is More Qualified - Rasmussen Reports". Archived from the original on May 12, 2006. Retrieved 2010-05-24.
  20. ^ Fornek, Scott (October 9, 2004). "Bush, Kerry make draft, tax pledges". Chicago Sun-Times. Digital Chicago. Archived from the original on October 12, 2004.
  21. ^ Noah, Timothy (2004-10-11). "Why Bush opposes Dred Scott. - By Timothy Noah - Slate Magazine". Archived from the original on 2009-07-06. Retrieved 2010-05-24.
  22. ^ "Bush, Kerry battle at Tempe presidential debate |". Archived from the original on August 28, 2006. Retrieved May 25, 2006.