A debate where citizen is star
Monday's YouTube event nudged the format into cyberspace, but it was no Internet breakthrough.
Questions at the Democratic presidential debate here came from a guitar player who sang about taxes, a young woman talking to her bathroom mirror, and a snowman with carrots for lips and concerns about global warming.Skip to next paragraph
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The staid rituals of presidential debates met the hurly-burly of the Internet Monday night, in an event cosponsored by YouTube that saw candidates fielding questions that a set of mostly young Americans had uploaded to the video-sharing website.
YouTube and CNN, the other sponsor, promoted the forum as a radical change that harnessed the freewheeling populism of the Web and gave anyone anywhere a shot at quizzing candidates for the country's highest office.
But the debate came off more as evolution than revolution. While the 39 video questions aired during the two-hour program injected some humor and razzle-dazzle into a tired form, the debate retained many familiar trappings. A panel of CNN journalists chose which of the nearly 3,000 YouTube questions to pose to candidates, angering bloggers and Internet activists who felt the choice should be left to Web users.
And despite a few tough questions about the war in Iraq, race relations, and Hillary Clinton's bid to be the first female president, the candidates proved adept at steering answers back to comfortable territory.
"I'm not convinced it represented a lot beyond at best giving us some break from the routine of the traditional debate genre," said Jamie McKown, a government professor at College of the Atlantic in Maine. "I strongly believe that new e-mediums and advances in communication technology do have the potential to change politics. But this wasn't it."
Evolution of debate format
Several political scientists said the biggest shift in format since Richard Nixon and John Kennedy faced each other in the first televised debate nearly a half century ago remains the first town-hall style forum, in 1992. Uncommitted voters asked most of the questions, the moderator didn't see the question wording in advance, and there were some surprises. When a woman asked the candidates how the national debt affected them personally, then-President George H.W. Bush seemed momentarily at a loss. "I'm not sure I get it," he said. "Help me with the question."
The nearest thing to a gaffe from a major candidate Monday night came when a Colorado man closed the debate by asking each candidate to name a like and dislike about the candidate to their left. "I'm not sure about that coat," quipped former Sen. John Edwards, drawing some boos as he turned to Mrs. Clinton, who wore a coral-hued jacket amid the sea of dark men's suits.
Though the moderator, Anderson Cooper, tried to force candidates to answer the questions, their delivery over pre-recorded video made some of the sharper ones easier to finesse, some analysts said.
"In some town-hall debates, people had a chance to follow up and drill and nail the candidate," says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University. "Here, people can't follow up."
In some cases, the juxtaposition of the quirky questions – some filmed with jerky handheld cameras and MTV-style editing cuts – with the candidates' sober replies seemed to highlight the gap between politicians and young Americans rather than bridge it.
Still, several experts praised CNN and YouTube for trying to engage voters in new ways. At the very least, the debate at The Citadel, a state military college here, was a milestone in the growing cross-pollination between the Internet, television, and presidential politics, they said.
It also marked a coming of age for YouTube, whose earlier influence on campaigns was mostly as an emporium of painfully unscripted moments often caught by amateur photographers: Sen. John McCain singing "Bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys' Barbara Ann; Mr. Edwards fussing over his hair to a soundtrack of "I feel pretty"; Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia calling his opponent's campaign aide a "macaca," a comment that helped cost his reelection last fall.