A recollection: The historic 1980 Nashua debate
NASHUA – George H. W. Bush, who died Friday at 94, came to Nashua numerous times as he criss-crossed New Hampshire ahead of the First-in-the-Nation presidential primary of 1980.
One of seven candidates vying for the Republican nomination that year, the physically fit, seemingly tireless Bush was feeling confident over a slight, but significant, win in the Iowa caucus when he arrived in Nashua for his final Gate City visit before New Hampshire’s Feb. 26 primary election.
On the evening of Saturday, Feb. 23, Bush and his chief challenger, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, took their seats on a large stage at one end of the gymnasium at what was then Nashua Senior High School and prepared to do verbal battle in a debate that, as Gettysburg College author Michael J. Birkner wrote in “The Defining Moment: The 1980 Nashua Debate,” became the stuff of “American political folklore.”
By evening’s end, the series of events, some, as we know now, planned by Reagan staffers, others unexpected and spontaneous, had drained the energy from the over-capacity crowd that just a couple of hours earlier was standing, cheering, booing and otherwise reacting to the bizarre proceedings taking place before them.
With the countdown on to primary election day, the Nashua debate was making headlines across the land. Experts and pundits pretty much agreed: the turn of events had shifted Bush’s “Big Mo” – momentum – toward Reagan.
Bush talked little, at least publicly, about the Nashua debate, in which the “Big Mo” that was once his propelled Reagan to a resounding 50 percent to 23 percent victory in the all-important New Hampshire Primary.
Until April 22, only Massachusetts – Bush’s birthplace – and Connecticut – where he grew up – chose Bush over Reagan, by two and five points, respectively.
But come July and the GOP National Convention, the upstart victor extended an olive branch to Bush, choosing his former foe as his vice president.
In retrospect, Bush’s two-point victory over Reagan in Iowa’s Jan. 21 caucus, which was labeled an upset, is said to have sent a pang of anxiety through Reagan senior staffers, including campaign manager John Sears.
According to Birkner, the Gettysburg College author, Reagan staffers worried that his refusal to take part in an Iowa candidates’ debate may have contributed to his surprise loss to Bush.
Just before the Iowa caucus, Birkner wrote, Reagan’s own polls showed him with a 19-point lead among New Hampshire Republicans. But five days after the caucus, he had fallen six points behind Bush.
As for the Nashua debate, what many observers described as the circus atmosphere in the debate’s opening minutes included the sudden appearance of four of the five other candidates, who followed Reagan onto the stage.
Reagan had invited them, it turned out, over the objections of the Bush camp – his staff wanted the one-on-one debate – as well as the debate sponsor: The Nashua Telegraph, represented by Publisher J. Herman Pouliot and Executive Editor Jon Breen.
Then, as Reagan tried to address the crowd to explain his reasons for inviting the other candidates, Breen, who served as moderator, asked that Reagan’s microphone be turned off.
Reagan persisted; Breen issued the order again. Finally, Reagan, clearly angry, grabbed his microphone and stood up.
“I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green,” Reagan boomed, mispronouncing Breen’s name but nevertheless whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
All the while, according to Birkner, Bush “froze,” remaining “silent and seated, staring grimly at his notes.”
Bush, experts have said, and Birkner touches upon, may have been able to stem the sudden surge by Reagan, perhaps by getting up and cheerfully greeting the other four candidates when they appeared on stage.
But he did not, likely putting an end, for the time being, to his presidential aspirations, right here in Nashua.
Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-1256, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Telegraph_DeanS.