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Six GOP candidates to hold Twitter debate. Here's how to see it.

Wednesday's Twitter debate among six GOP presidential candidates is a first. Will the 140-character format produce a series of sound bites? Or will interactivity make it more meaningful for voters?

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If such an event happened in just one stream on Twitter, “the candidates would end up getting drowned out” with the fast flow of public comment, says Adam Green, CEO of 140 Dev, a consulting company that helped create the debate website.

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So, how will people judge who wins in a Twitter debate? That remains to be seen, but one big measure, organizers say, will be who gets retweeted the most – in other words, how many members of the public click on a candidate’s response to send it to their own Twitter stream to share with their followers.

“No other medium allows you to do that kind of reporting,” says Andrew Hemingway, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire. He came up with the idea for the Twitter debate and is one of its producers.

Candidates will also be able to see quickly how well people respond to their points on various issues, and they could even identify big fans who may not have been on their radar screens.

Since the candidates will be logging onto Twitter from whatever location and digital device they choose, a certain amount of trust is required.

“Do we have some secure way to prove they are [the ones tweeting]? No, we don’t,” says Mr. Hemingway, who is also a consultant for politicians delving into social media. “But I don’t know any candidate who’s going to allow their junior staffer or new-media guy to go answer questions in a debate for them, no matter what format.”

Many politicians use Twitter and other social media simply to post campaign ads or other information they want to broadcast, Hemingway says. But one of his clients is a high-ranking Republican in Congress who will personally respond to tweets within five minutes.

Those who are using it “as a conversation tool, those are the guys getting the most out of it,” Hemingway says. “It’s a real-time 24-hour, seven-days-a-week town hall.... That’s the beauty of it.”

About 13 percent of American adults use Twitter, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, up from 8 percent in November 2010. Mr. Gingrich alone has more than 1.3 million followers on Twitter. Ms. Bachmann has just over 62,000.

Tim Pawlenty, a Republican candidate not participating in Wednesday’s debate, delivered a “tweetnote” speech and then took questions Tuesday from attendees of the American Jobs Conference on Twitter.

President Obama raised the profile of the social-media site by holding a Twitter town hall two weeks ago. Twitter users sent in 60,000 questions in advance using the hashtag #AskObama.

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