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updated 10/7/2004 5:50:37 PM ET 2004-10-07T21:50:37

Presidential debates are one of the greatest arenas in American politics.  The stakes are high, the audiences are huge, and with the action live, anything can happen and everything will matter.  We know from history that an election can turn on a single moment.

The MSNBC Special “Picking Our Presidents: Secrets of the Great Debates,” which airs Oct. 3, Sunday, 10 p.m. ET, will look at four decades of televised debates and give you the inside stories. You'll learn which of the great adlibs turned out not to have been spontaneous, but instead were well-rehearsed, and we'll talk about which debates may have actually affected the outcome of the election.

Tom Brokaw has covered these debates over the year and even asked the question that evoked one of the most famous lines in debate history. We’ll show that what make these debates so important are not only ideas and policy positions, but imagery and personality.

“It's a combination of all of these qualities that one has,” says Tom Brokaw. “Are you commanding?  Are you empathetic?  Is it somebody I'm comfortable with?  Do I want to live with them?  What if they were right next door, would I be happy about having them as my neighbor?”

In 1960, John Kennedy used the televised appearances to show he was at least the equal of Richard Nixon in terms of knowledge and ability.

In 1976, President Ford committed the kind of on-camera error that politicians dread when he seemed to deny the existence of the Iron Curtain.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan put the country at ease by showing a moderate, calm personality that made Jimmy Carter look insecure and desperate by contrast.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis left the viewers cold with his mechanical reaction to a question involving his wife.

In 1992, Bill Clinton mastered the art of the interactive and empathetic approach to American politics.

In the year 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by coming across as a more likable regular fellow than his rival, who never quite seemed to decide on the right persona to present to the American people.

Debates have become an unwritten requirement of our American democracy, and if the past is any guide, they will continue to decide who we choose as our leader.

"Picking our Presidents: Secrets of the Great Debates" re-airs Wednesday, Oct. 6, 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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