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GOP candidates debate on Twitter: What could they say in 140 characters?

Herman Cain got 4,500 retweets and Michele Bachmann got the most @ references. Does that make them the winners of the first Twitter-based debate, held among six Republican candidates?

By Staff writer / July 20, 2011

From left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and businessman Herman Cain stand on stage before an in-person debate in Manchester, N.H. on June 13. Most of them, and a few newcomers, participated in a Twitter-based debate on Wednesday.

Jim Cole / AP / File

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Concord, N.H.

The first-ever presidential Twitter debate unfurled in rapid-fire style this afternoon, with six Republican candidates proving they can “talk 2 u” in abbreviations almost as well as a text-savvy teen.

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Public participation exceeded organizers’ expectations, averaging 180 tweets per minute. When it wrapped up at 4:30, about 4,500 of the candidates’ tweets had been retweeted – that is, forwarded on by Twitter users.

But some viewers were left thinking that Twitter just didn’t lend itself to a substantive debate.

“The format leaves a lot to be desired because you can’t form a structured argument at all – they’re just sound bites,” said Bill Hannah, who came to watch the debate on a big screen at the conference center in Concord, N.H., where the event was produced. As someone who believes in many tea party objectives, he was hoping to learn where the candidates stood on his issues, but found the sometimes-disconnected stream of questions and answers disappointing.

The moderator, conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, sat perched on a high stool in front of her laptop. The live radio show of co-moderator Rusty Humphries played on a speaker, providing a bit of an echo-chamber effect as he read aloud tweets that had been posted minutes before.

After each candidate gave their opening statement in two or three 140-character tweets, Ms. Cupp tweeted the first of five questions posed to all the candidates: As president, how will you avoid continually raising the debt ceiling?

Newt Gingrich was the first to jump in, noting, “I am the only candidate who has balanced the budget.”

Michele Bachmann tweeted, “Lesson of ’82 and ’90 is promised #spending cuts never last while higher taxes persist. No more biz as usual. No debt hike.”

(By putting the # symbol in front of spending, called a hashtag in Twitter-land, she ensured that anyone searching Twitter for tweets on spending would get a look at her answer.)

Another question: Can a president create jobs without expanding the role of the federal government?

Herman Cain responded: “Lower top corp. and personal tax rates to a MAX 25%. And most importantly, make them permanent! Uncertainty kills the economy.”

Mr. Cain may be considered a long-shot candidate by political pundits, but he was popular with this crowd, which had a tea-party slant because the debate was hosted by TheTeaParty.net.

Shortly after the debate, Cain’s tweets had been retweeted more than any other candidate’s. As of 4:38 p.m., this Cain tweet was the most popular of the debate: “Government doesn’t create jobs. Businesses create jobs. Government needs to get out the way.”

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