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?

By , Staff writer

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    Republican candidates (L to R) Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania; Congresswoman Michele Bachmann; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney; Texas congressman Ron Paul; former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty; entrepreneur Herman Cain attend their debate June 13 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.
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On Wednesday, six Republicans will be duking it out in the first Twitter debate among presidential candidates.

Tweeting – posting messages within Twitter’s 140-character limit – may seem like the ultimate form of sound-bite politics. But the popular social-media site has the potential to deliver more depth than a typical television debate, organizers and political science experts say. That’s largely because of Twitter's interactive nature and the ability to include Internet links within tweets.

“It could be very substantive because [a candidate] could say, ‘I have a 10-point plan to revive manufacturing.... Click on this site and read a 25-page paper,’ ” says Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “In a TV debate you might have a minute to summarize your answer, but you don’t have the Web link that enables [you to convey] other types of information.”

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The debate, scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday, is sponsored by TheTeaParty.net, a national organization that supports tea party events and groups across the United States.

The candidates who will be squaring off for 90 minutes: Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, and Thaddeus McCotter.

The moderators are conservative political commentator S.E. Cupp and radio talk-show host Rusty Humphries. Along with TheTeaParty.net organizers, they’ve been collecting questions tweeted from the field.

To join in the action on Twitter, follow or tweet using @140townhall. For easier viewing during the debate, organizers set up the website 140TownHall.com. There you can watch one column for the moderators’ questions and candidates’ answers. In another column, you can see the public’s tweets, slowed down to a reasonable speed for reading along.

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.

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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