GOP YouTube debates: Good marks for new views of candidates

A new style of debating has sprung from Internet savvy, and it's beneficial to voters, experts say.

In the end, Republican presidential candidates didn't face any questions from talking snowmen.

But this week's CNN/YouTube debate lived up to its billing as a free wheeling forum, with the candidates responding to videos that represented the diversity of the nation – from an Alabama woman in a burqa to a fisherman in Cambridge, Md., to a man wielding a Bible asking if the candidates "believe every word of this book."

Now that both parties have held debates featuring citizen-generated videos – the Democrats had theirs in July – observers of the Internet and politics have concluded that the format is here to stay and that it is a boon to voters who benefit from that sense of connection between citizens and their leaders. Candidates reveal views and aspects of themselves that might not necessarily have come through in a more traditional format, with journalists and TV anchors asking the questions, they note.

"When a Tim Russert or a Wolf Blitzer asks a question and a candidate dodges it, there are no real consequences to the candidates," says Michael Cornfield, an adjunct professor in political management at George Washington University, in Washington, DC. "It's harder for them to dodge questions from real people."

On Wednesday night, viewers learned just how committed some of the Republican candidates are to keeping gays out of the military. They learned how hostile Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo is toward legal guest workers – even when addressing a small businessman who says his livelihood depends on them. They learned that former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who tends to eschew questions on religion on the campaign trail, can speak comfortably about his view of the Bible. (Some parts are interpretive, some are allegorical, and some are meant to be interpreted "in a modern context," he said.)

The debate also provided the latest forum for the smackdown that Mr. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have been engaging in for weeks over immigration. CNN set the table by selecting videos dealing with that issue to open the debate. But the two GOP front-runners seemed more than happy to oblige, with each insisting the other was providing a "sanctuary" for illegal immigrants during their time as mayor and governor.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of the debate was that it happened at all. When CNN and YouTube proposed a forum for the Republican candidates like the one staged for the Democrats, Mr. Romney and Giuliani cited scheduling conflicts. Romney also balked at the idea of taking a question from an animated snowman, as the Democrats had in their YouTube debate. He called it demeaning.

When the September YouTube debate for the Republicans was canceled, the GOP blogosphere lit up. The party's Web-savvy activists argued that their candidates were making a big mistake in alienating the very people who have embraced the Internet as an important medium for reaching out to voters. At this point just about every demographic is engaging online, though less so with low-income people, the least educated, and some older people.

Internet executives see the integration of the Web into the political process deepening by the day. From 2000, when Arizona Sen. John McCain showed the Web's value in fundraising, to 2006, when then-Sen. George Allen of Virginia botched his reelection campaign by uttering an apparent slur that was caught on video and posted on YouTube, the Web has changed politics for good. On Jan. 1 and 2 – right before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses – the social-networking site MySpace will host an Internet presidential "primary" that the candidates are taking seriously.

"You ignore the digital space and the MySpace generation at your political peril," says Jeff Berman, senior vice president of public affairs at MySpace in Los Angeles.

And so the CNN/YouTube debate was revived for Nov. 28. The irony is that, by holding the debate two months later than originally planned and only five weeks before the Iowa caucuses – the crucial first nominating contest – the stakes were much bigger than they would have been in September. It was the first GOP debate in a month, and with the race for the nomination wide open, anticipation was high. CNN received almost 5,000 video submissions, 2,000 more than they received for the Democratic debate. Of those, 34 were used.

Viewership ratings are not yet known, but at the quadrennial College Convention in Manchester, N.H., students tuned in.

"The Democrats had been going after the youth vote, and now the Republicans are trying to jump on that, too," says Austin Lyman, a sophomore at St. Mary's College in St. Mary's City, Maryland.

"It's nice to see that they recognize that YouTube is a means of communication and connection," added Mr. Lyman, who is from Birmingham, Ala. "Republicans are often known as old-school traditionalists, not seeing the new light. They're the Grand Old Party. [The debate] shows that maybe the old dog can learn new tricks." 

Emmanuel Balogun of Pawtucket, R.I., a sophomore at New England College in Henniker, N.H., is a registered Democrat. But with this debate, he says, "I finally saw some likable characters in the Republican Party."

Mr. Balogun thought former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was the most "genuine" with his answers. "He was prepared for all the shots thrown at him," he says.

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