Less well remembered were the steady performances by the two female VP nominees, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008, neither of whom had much national political experience.
Well remembered are Ronald Reagan's quips. "There you go again!" he said good-naturedly when he was attacked by Jimmy Carter in 1980. And in 1984, when asked about his age, he casually replied, "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." It worked because Walter Mondale was plainly mature and experienced.
That was when debates became institutionalized. Reagan, though far ahead in the polls, felt obliged to debate. In 1987, a presidential debates commission, chaired by former national party chairmen, was created. It's been setting the rules, subject to approval by the candidates, ever since.
Do debates make a difference? Maybe in 1960, maybe when Ford tripped up on Eastern Europe, maybe when Reagan asked if voters were better off than they were four years before.
Recent evidence seems more nuanced. Gallup polls before and after debates tell us that Bill Clinton lost ground in the 1992 debate period and gained some in 1996. George W. Bush picked up support in the 2000 debate period but slipped in 2004.
Barack Obama gained some ground during the 2008 debates, but it's not clear they had anything to do with his rise. They took place when the nation was passing through the financial crisis and John McCain's candidacy was spinning dizzily downward.
One reason debates matter, perhaps more than they once did, is that they are one of the few political events with a bipartisan audience.
This year's debates give Mitt Romney, narrowly behind in polls, a chance to make a case against Barack Obama and for his own policies. We'll see what he makes of it.