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This is the 52nd presidential election.

The 44th, in 1960, was a watershed. For the first time almost every American voter saw the presidential nominees in action. Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, and Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, debated each other face to face on national television four times. Approximately 80 percent of the total adult population watched at least one of the debates.

Most contemporary accounts and subsequent sociological studies concluded that Senator Kennedy won the debates. By "won" these assessors meant only that he was a better debater -- better prepared, more agile in argument and more attractive.

Kennedy was elected. Did the debates do it? The Gallup Poll just before the first debate showed him and Nixon in a statistical dead heat, and the final popular vote was almost a tie. Kennedy's popular vote margin was only 115 thousand out of 68 million, or one sixth of one percent.

That was margin enough for a 303-219 electoral vote victory. Whether the debates made him president will, itself, be debated forever. Debates themselves did, however, eventually become an institutionalized element in presidential campaigns.

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