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.
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.
CNN's role in selecting the questions Monday had drawn fire early on from bloggers who saw it as an affront to the culture of YouTube, where videos with the highest view counts and user ratings rise to the top of a screen.
"You guys have a chance to really engage with the Web audience, and you're missing out on that by playing the traditional role of gatekeeper," Joshua Levy, an associate editor at Techpresident.com, a website that monitors the Web's role in the campaigns, said of CNN.
David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief and the debate's executive producer, said screening was necessary to ensure that candidates addressed a range of issues and to filter out mischief. Among the top-three rated videos, he noted, were questions about a UFO conference and whether Arnold Schwarzenegger is a cyborg.
"We will embrace as much of the spirit of YouTube and its sort of wonderful oddness as possible," he said Friday in a phone interview. But "if our questions involve cyborgs and UFOs, it will be the last time the new media is allowed a seat at the table to select a president."
David Colarusso, a high school physics teacher from Lexington, Mass., tried an end-run around CNN's role with a website, CommunityCounts.us, that let users cast votes for questions they most wanted candidates to answer. The top vote-getter was about whether to impeach President Bush. "I felt there should be a way for the community to leverage their voice and say, 'We'd like you to answer this question," Mr. Colarusso said.
The effort appeared to have little effect on CNN's choices Monday night.
What did Americans ask?
Most of the 2,989 questions uploaded to YouTube from June 14 to July 22 featured earnest-looking people in some cluttered corner of their homes posing familiar questions about healthcare, education, and the environment.
But there were some twists. A question Monday about the humanitarian crisis in Sudan came from a couple posing with African children at a refugee camp near Darfur. A Long Island breast cancer survivor doffed a wig to reveal a bald head and said she had "gone for years without health insurance that would have allowed me to take preventative medicine."
YouTube users who submitted questions seemed to find the exercise empowering, whether or not they made prime time.
Anthony Amabile, a disabled artist from New Castle, Pa., said he paid little attention to the campaigns before recording a question about health insurance. He said that even if his video isn't selected – it wasn't – "my voice is out there and somebody will hear it."
It is hard to argue that the debate ushered the YouTube generation into a colloquy with its political leaders. On a website where users upload hundreds of thousands of videos each day, the number of debate questions – fewer than 3,000 over more than five weeks despite heavy coverage in the media and blogosphere – suggest that the chance to query a presidential hopeful ranks somewhere below the first reason Americans go online.
Nor was the new media format immune to old-school lobbying. Interest groups from the AARP to Planned Parenthood pressed members to upload multiple videos of the same questions, said Steve Grove, YouTube's news and politics editor. One Democratic candidate, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, even posted a script for an Iraq war question on his website and urged supporters to recite it in their YouTube submissions.
CNN deemed the Biden and interest-group videos an effort to "stuff the ballot box" and rejected them. "It's 21st-century political activism," Mr. Grove acknowledged in an interview. "Spam the YouTube inbox with your question."