Former President Donald Trump – citing his frontrunner status – declined late last month to participate in the crowded Republican presidential primary debate, while six of the eight remaining candidates said during the debate that they would support the legally-embattled Trump if he is the eventual GOP nominee. In this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Looking Ahead: A Viewers’ Guide to Presidential Debates,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman reflected on the surreal support for Trump at the recent debate and looked toward the 2024 election season’s debate slate, using past iconic matchups – from Lincoln-Douglas to Kennedy-Nixon – to help explain the democratic value of debating. Another set of presidential primary debates with particular resonance to the current GOP came in 1996, when a large conservative field tried to unseat leading contender Bob Dole. 

As with President Joe Biden today, incumbent President Bill Clinton faced a large group of eager Republican would-be challengers at the start of his reelection campaign. 

On January 6th, 1996, six of the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination offered the first primary debate of the election cycle at the State Fairgrounds in Columbia, South Carolina in front of 2,000 State Party leaders. The debate carried nationwide on CNN, was – like the recent GOP debate –  missing a critical component: Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. 

Dole had been in the Senate since 1969 and had chaired the Republican National Committee in the 1970s. He had made a serious presidential run in 1988, when he won five primaries before losing to George H.W. Bush. He had become the Senate Majority Leader when Republicans took both houses of Congress during the 1994 midterms. He had come out of the gate with a sizable lead across the nation in 1996, and a group of politicians had started to punch at Dole from the Right. 

Citing his lead across South Carolina, Dole opted to campaign in the more-contested Iowa before heading back to Washington for a decidedly establishment purpose: A budget negotiation with President Bill Clinton. 

As the Dole-less debate began, a 22-day government shutdown – the longest to that point in American history – was finally coming to an end. The holiday season battle had centered on Clinton’s vetoing of the Republican-led Congress’s budget, which included provisions to lower taxes on wealthy Americans and to shift control of Medicaid to state-level agencies. Dole had, on New Year’s Eve 1996, signaled on the Senate floor his desire to resume negotiations, telling his colleagues, “We ought to end this. It has gotten to the point where it’s a little ridiculous.” 

He had also continued to support Clinton world trade programs that many of his challengers had abandoned for a more protectionist policy – the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade chief among them. 

Dole’s foreign policy centrism and his move toward burying the budget hatchet with Clinton became a useful tool for his challengers in South Carolina. 

One challenger, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, arguably a more conservative budget hawk than Dole, led the charge. “Bob Dole has said it doesn’t matter that he is not here tonight, and maybe it doesn’t,” Gramm began. “But it does matter that he is up in Washington cutting a deal with Bill Clinton.” 

Later in the debate, Gramm was more blunt: “We’re not going to beat Bill Clinton by being moderate.” 

The other contenders joined the anti-Dole chorus. Alan Keyes, the only Black candidate on the GOP side and a former high-ranking State Department official, said that Dole was part of a “Republican leadership that doesn’t have the guts to stand for what we really believe in.”

Pat Buchanan – the Nixon and Reagan White House aide who had attempted to primary incumbent President Bush in 1992 and who had embraced an anti-immigration and anti-globalist posture, including the then-way-far-out plan to construct a 200-mile wall on the Southern border – also touted his conservative bonafides. In a seeming reference to his famed appearances on the CNN debate show Crossfire, Buchanan said, “My friends, if you want to defeat Bill Clinton, you better not go with a career politician. You better go with someone who can put that fella in the crossfire and send him and Ms. Hillary right back to Arkansas to face the music.” 

The next week, on January 13th, the contenders, this time including Dole, met in Iowa for a Des Moines Register-sponsored debate. Dole, speaking in the third person, defended his willingness to work with the Democratic leadership: “Bob Dole is not a polarizer. Bob Dole provides leadership. Bob Dole delivers.” 

After Dole bested an unexpectedly strong-showing Buchanan in the Iowa Caucus, he appeared at another CNN-broadcast New Hampshire debate on February 15th, where he lashed out at Buchanan, calling him an “extremist.” Buchanan, also taking on the third-person style, fired back, suggesting Dole’s name-calling only proved his centrist identity: “Bob, Pat Buchanan is not an extremist. Those are cuss words of the establishment.” 

Dole also got into it with heir and Forbes magazine editor Steve Forbes, who had run a series of negative attack ads on Dole that featured unflattering photographs. “They didn’t even use a good photograph of me,” Dole complained, before pulling out more sunny family snapshots from his pocket.

“Senator, no pretty picture can get around what you did on taxes,” Forbes replied. 

Dole played some hardball with Forbes, who was surging in the upcoming Arizona and Delaware primaries. “I know your problem,” Dole told Forbes. “You’ve got a lot of money and you want to buy this election. But this election’s not for sale.”  

Dole went on to offer a sort of statement of moderate purpose: “I will be the next President of the United States. I will be a good mainstream American president with a lot of good ideas about America’s future.” 

At the debate’s end, after ninety minutes of weathering attacks, Dole referenced his World War II service, during which he was wounded and nearly killed in combat with the Nazis in the Apennine Mountains. “I’ve been shot at a lot tonight,” Dole admitted. “But I’ve been in combat before.” 

On February 22nd, Dole, perhaps in response to the aggression in New Hampshire, skipped a debate at Arizona State University. “Dole ‘Snub’ Leaves Debate Wide Open,” read the Arizona Republic headline. 

Former Tennessee Governor and Bush-era Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander – arguably the most centrist candidate save Dole – argued that Dole’s absence signaled his broader unwillingness to engage with different opinions. “Senator Dole should be here tonight if he wants to be the Republican nominee,” Alexander declared, before accusing the absent frontrunner of engaging in an “idea-ducking contest.” 

Dole returned a week later, on February 29th, back in Columbia, South Carolina, to find his competition even more eager to draw him out on controversial issues.

When Buchanan, Keyes, and the other GOP longshots hit on Dole’s tendencies toward compromise with Democrats, the Senate Majority Leader fired back, citing his central role in the Reagan tax cuts and his opposition to Clinton’s 1993 tax hike on the top two income brackets. “

Don’t malign my integrity here,” Dole chastised. 

Buchanan, in full provocation mode, vociferously defended the Confederate flag and the de facto Confederate anthem, “Dixie.” “My friends, if there is room in America for the fighting song of the civil rights movement, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ then there’s got to be room for Dixie as well,” Buchanan carped. 

Dole largely dodged the Confederate issue, but was indeed drawn into a confused web of far-right sentiment, brought on by a local reporter’s question on abortion: “If I were raped by a vicious criminal and became pregnant, would you oppose a first-trimester abortion, knowing that a continued pregnancy would cause me mental and emotional anguish?” 

Buchanan, characteristically, advised the theoretical woman to have the child: “I would try to counsel you to do that, because I believe the unborn child is innocent. And the only guilty party here is the rapist.” 

Dole, in a break from his stated position on supporting abortion in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother, responded that he, too, would oppose an abortion in the reporter’s scenario. “I’m opposed to abortion, as I’ve indicated before. I have a strong pro-life record, a consistent record in the Congress of the United States, and I would keep it that way,” he explained. 

After Forbes and Alexander both disagreed, Dole retracted his statement, saying that he would in fact offer support allowing abortions for those who had been raped. But as he wrapped up his clarification, Dole caused further confusion by seemingly backpedaling again, saying, “I would do pretty much as Pat Buchanan indicated in this case.” Following the debate, amid a flurry of questions from reporters, a flustered Dole said that he had simply misheard the question. Buchanan had seemingly, however, gotten under his skin. 

Dole’s gaffe did not stop him from sweeping the eight primaries held on Tuesday, March 5th, 1996 – a performance that had many politicos calling the primary season over. 

Three days later, Buchanan, Keyes, and Forbes – in a last-ditch effort – held an “outsiders” debate in Dallas. Buchanan trumpeted his disrupter status in the primary: “Pat Buchanan’s views aren’t extreme because Bob Dole and Bill Clinton are beginning to echo them.”

But, even with Buchanan’s continued taunting and bluster, the contest was effectively over. Dole, in Tampa, Florida, questioned the efficacy of the continued debating “How long do they want to aid Bill Clinton?” he asked of the “outsider” debaters. “That’s essentially what they want to do. I think it’s pretty clear now that I’m going to get the nomination.” 

Sure enough, the other candidates soon dropped out, and Dole went on to the nomination and a loss to President Clinton in November 1996.

27 years on, the 1996 GOP primary debates appear not so much as an indication of the strength of Dole’s relative moderation, but a harbinger of the Republican Party’s fractious turn toward populism and far-right resentment. And after the recent debate show of support by non-Trump candidates for their absent rival, the pervasiveness of the resentful outsider mentality of the underdog 1996 candidates seems stronger than ever. 

For more on the 1996 election, check out Bob Woodward’s 1997 chronicle of the GOP primary and general election, The Choice: How Bill Clinton Won

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

To receive Time Machine articles in your inbox, sign up to receive the CAFE Brief newsletter sent every Friday.  

The Time Machine Archive  

Catch up on some recent Time Machine deep dives into history: