Election 2012: 21 Memorable Moments of the 2012 Presidential Campaign

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The 2012 presidential campaign has played like a couple of very long seasons of American Idol – only with, you know, actual consequences for the audience of voters who are watching.

The first season was a year-long series of Republican debates (20 of them!) and primaries, winnowing down a cast of colorful characters to find a winning challenger to compete against President Barack Obama.

Season 2 was the nearly-as-long battle of words and memes between the president and his eventual Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

Like any good reality show, this one produced some memorable moments -- bizarre gaffes, witty zingers, tactical victories and missteps, even outright smears -- that went viral, producing instant eruptions of pundit commentary, late-night parody, and snark on Twitter and Tumblr.

Now that the show is just about over, with Election Day fast approaching on Tuesday, to be followed by the victor's applying himself to the dreary duty of cleaning up America's extravagant messes, it's easy to forget that watching this whole spectacle was actually sort of fun and entertaining.

So here's a list of the 21 most unforgettable, eye-rolling, knee-slapping, heartstring-pulling moments of the 2012 presidential campaign.

1. Newsweek runs a cover featuring a photo of crazy-eyed candidate Michele Bachmann, with a story titled "The Queen of Rage." The magazine is criticized for sexism and bias for running the unflattering cover, though detractors of the often factually-challenged, conspiracy-minded candidate suggest the magazine is just telling it like it is. (Aug. 7, 2011)

2. At a Republican debate in Tampa, moderator Wolf Blitzer asks a hypothetical question about a young man who lets a life-threatening condition go untreated for lack of health insurance. Audience members are heard shouting, "Let him die." Democrats cite the moment to paint the GOP and its supporters as heartless extremists. (Sept. 12, 2001)

3. No candidate was more entertaining than Godfather's Pizza CEO-turned-GOP dark horse Herman Cain. Alas, such meme-friendly Cain-isms as the ridiculously simple 9-9-9 tax plan and his unique pronunciation of Uzbekistan ("Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan") came to a halt when old sexual harassment allegations surfaced and forced him to drop out of the race. (May-December 2011)

4. During a GOP debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry suffers a brain freeze and is unable to name three federal government departments he would shut down as a budget-slashing president. The ensuing ridicule leads voters to stop taking him seriously as a candidate. (Nov. 9, 2011)

5. At a debate in Des Moines, when Perry confronts Mitt Romney on his flip-flopping (claiming he revised a line in reprints of his book, eliminating reference to his Massachusetts health plan as a model for the nation), the former Mass. Governor bets Perry $10,000 that the revision never happened. The expensive wager is supposed to be a rhetorical zinger, but it backfires on Romney, making him look like a wealthy, out-of-touch elitist. (Dec. 10, 2001)

6. At a fundraiser at Harlem's Apollo Theater, President Obama does an impressive imitation of Al Green (who is present at the event), crooning a few bars of Green's "Let's Stay Together." Within days, the YouTube video of the brief karaoke routine has streamed 4 million times and sent Green's decades-old ballad soaring up the singles chart.(Jan. 19, 2012).

7. Newsletters published in the 1990s under Republican candidate Ron Paul's name come under fire for their racist content. Paul, who had initially refused to apologize for the bulletins, now disavowed them, saying he had lent his name to the publications without having read them.  (Jan. 2012)

8. Romney campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom uses an analogy to suggest that the extreme positions his candidate espoused during the primaries wouldn't repel moderate voters in the general election: "It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." Romney detractors in both parties use the Etch A Sketch meme to criticize Romney's seeming opportunism and lack of core principles. (March 21, 2012)

9. Democratic advisor Hilary Rosen criticizes Romney's wife Ann as out-of-touch with wage-earning women, noting that the wealthy housewife and mother of five has "never worked a day in her life." Republicans and feminists alike pounce on the comment, arguing that it devalues the work done by stay-at-home moms. Rosen is forced to apologize, as Democrats are forced to cede some of their moral high ground on women's issues to the Republicans. (April 10, 2012)

10. The Daily Caller website unearths an excerpt from Obama's memoir Dreams of My Father in which he mentions eating dog meat as a child with his stepfather in Indonesia. There's even an audio clip of the president reading the words, from the book-on-tape version. Obama dog-meat recipe jokes abound, as the Republicans use the meme to counter the animal-cruelty story of how Romney strapped the family pooch to the roof of the car during a Romney clan road trip. (April 17, 2012)

11. Obama says "The private sector is doing fine" in terms of improving non-government job creation numbers. Republicans seize on the first six words to claim that the president is out of touch with the harsh economic realities of the suffering middle class. (June 8, 2012)

12. Obama gives a speech saying that businesses thrive when taxpayers and government help by (among other things) building infrastructure, so if your business succeeds while making use of public roads and bridges, you can't claim sole credit for your success because "you didn't build that." Republicans glom onto those four words, claiming the president is saying that the government deserves all the credit for the success of private enterprise. It even makes "We Built That" the theme of the following month's Republican National Convention. (July 13, 2012)

13. Discussing the dangers of deregulation, Vice President Joe Biden tells Virginians that the GOP wants "to unchain Wall Street," which is "going to put y'all back in chains." Insulted Republicans detect a reference to slavery and claim black voters should be offended by Biden's rhetoric, but he refuses to apologize for his remarks.

14. At the Republican National Convention, Clint Eastwood upstages all the politicians with an improvised routine mocking Obama, represented onstage by an empty chair. Some observers find the 82-year-old actor/director's speech baffling or embarrassing, but no one can stop talking about it. It may, in fact, be the single most memorable moment of the whole campaign.(Aug. 30, 2012)

15. At the Democratic National Convention, former President Bill Clinton upstages the nominee with a barn-burner of a speech, one that lays out the case for Obama's re-election in simple, lay-person's terms. Obama jokingly suggests that Clinton should be appointed Secretary of Explaining Stuff, but as Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers jokes, that's supposed to be Obama's job. (Sept. 5, 2012)

16. Mother Jones magazine leaks a secretly taped video of Romney at a May fundraiser writing off "47 percent" of the electorate as people who won't vote for him because they don't pay federal income taxes, think of themselves as "victims," and demand government services. Democrats capitalize on what may be the biggest Romney gaffe of the campaign, saying he's insulted nearly half of America and that Obama wants to be president of 100 percent of the people. (Sept. 17, 2012)

17. The first presidential debate features a robust Romney outdoing a listless, barely there Obama. Nonetheless, the evening's most memorable meme – Romney saying that, despite Big Bird's popularity, he'd defund PBS – backfires against him, with Democrats and late-night comics ridiculing him for cracking down harder on Sesame Street than on Wall Street. (Oct. 3, 2012)

18. The Vice Presidential debate, between VP Joe Biden and Romney running mate Paul Ryan, is dominated by an aggressive Biden, who is nonetheless criticized for his rudeness in laughing at and interrupting Ryan. Biden's smirk becomes such a big meme that it generates its own fake Twitter account. (Oct. 11, 2012)

19. A town hall-style debate between the presidential rivals reveals a more vigorous Obama. The most memorable soundbite is Romney's remark about his affirmative-action hiring practices in selecting a cabinet in Massachusetts, saying he had "binders full of women" to choose from. Opponents snicker at the comment as evidence of Romney's maladroitness on women's issues. (Oct. 16, 2012)

20. In the final debate, when Romney criticizes Obama for allowing Navy ship counts to fall to their lowest level since World War I, he retorts that the nature of warfare has changed, and that we also have fewer "horses and bayonets." That becomes the comic sound bite of the end of the campaign. (Oct. 22, 2012)

21. Donald Trump teases at a bombshell announcement that will change the election. It turns out to be an offer to donate $5 million to charity if Obama will release his college and passport applications. Amid the bitter partisan bickering of the bitter end of the campaign, the tycoon provides all Americans with something they can agree on at last: that Donald Trump is a self-serving publicity hound. (Oct. 24, 2012)

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