Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas, 1858
This was the big one, the benchmark for all future discussions of political debates. Lincoln and Douglas squared off seven times in less than two months in their campaign for the Illinois seat in the United States Senate. Lincoln lost the election, but used the accompanying publicity as a springboard to the Republican nomination for president two years later.
William Jennings Bryan vs. William Howard Taft, 1908
Losing three presidential elections hardly tarnished the legacy of William Jennings Bryan, who served in Congress, as Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State, and famously argued against Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Trial. His debates with Taft were remarkable in that they were recorded for the phonograph and can be purchased still today.
John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon, 1960
The first televised debate was scored a win by those who only heard it on radio, but Kennedy appeared far more comfortable and, let's face it, attractive in front of the camera than Nixon, whose career took eight years to recover.
Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale, 1984
Every ounce of the Gipper's charm was on display in this brilliant reversal of a campaign issue that the Democrats strove so unsuccessfully to exploit. Reagan's line was so good and so expertly delivered, even Mondale had to chuckle, thinking all the while, "There's no way I can beat this guy, is there?"
Michael Dukakis vs. Bernard Shaw, 1988
Dukakis's opponent in the debate was actually George Bush, but his surpisingly unemotional reply to moderator Bernard Shaw's question of whether the candidate would support the death penalty in a hypothetical case where his wife was raped and murdered drew a flat response from viewers.
Lloyd Bentsen vs. Dan Quayle, 1988
When the Veep candidates took to the podium, Quayle gave Bentsen a belt-high fastball when he compared his own experience to that of John Kennedy, and Bentsen swatted it out of the park with perhaps the most famous putdown in debate history. You can almost see Quayle blink away the stinging tears.
Frank the Tank vs. James Carville, 2003
Okay, technically, this was not a political debate, not a real event, and not the funniest moment in this movie by a long shot, but still, how often do you see James Carville at a loss for words?