Debates to connect candidates and voters online

Members of the public will pose questions to candidates via homemade video in a new kind of debate Monday night.

The first of a new kind of presidential debate is scheduled for Monday night, one in which members of the general public pose questions to the candidates via homemade video. The debate is the latest front in the candidates' running battle to keep up with the fast-paced changes wrought by the Internet on politics.

CNN and YouTube are sponsoring the debate, which will take place among the eight Democratic presidential candidates. They are sponsoring a similar debate for the nine Republican candidates on Sept. 17.

People have sent in more than 2,000 online videos to YouTube.com, . CNN, which is broadcasting the debate in English and in Spanish on CNN En Español, will determine which two or three dozen videos it shows during the two-hour forum, which starts at 7 p.m. Eastern time. The candidates, who will assemble in Charleston, S.C., will be able to watch the videos on a giant screen or on monitors at their lecterns.

A scan of the videos submitted to YouTube shows most video-makers taking a straightforward approach, sitting at home and talking directly into the camera. The questions cover expected topics like health care, student loans and the crisis in Darfur, though some are asked in a provocative way. And many veer into unexpected territory.

One young man shows a clip of President Dwight D. Eisenhower warning about the influence of the military industrial complex and then asks the candidates if that is still a relevant concern. "If so," he asks, "how would you help to protect America from its undue influence?"

Another asks the candidates if they would put their friends in important government jobs. "Or are you going to hire the best and the brightest?" he asks. "Or are you prepared to tell us that your friends are the best and the brightest?"

A black man standing in front of a check-cashing store asks the candidates how they would stop predatory lending in low-income neighborhoods. A college student wants to know if the candidates would lower the legal drinking age to 18 from 21.

Another video-maker asks: "If you had to choose a current Republican presidential candidate as your running mate, who would you choose, and why?"

Many analysts, from consultants to bloggers, see the video format as having the potential to bring new voices into the process and change the media equation.

"These debates are the first real political foray into citizen journalism," writes Morra Aarons, a blogger and political director for BlogHer.org, which covers women's issues. Aarons is also a Democratic consultant who supports Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton but is not affiliated with her or any campaign.

Like many who are keen on the experiment, she wonders if it is an overhyped gimmick or if it will substantially alter the debates or politics.

"How big a shift does this really signal?" Aarons writes. "Is it a shift, or is it a stunt?"

David Bohrman, the Washington bureau chief for CNN, who has been sitting in a production bus in South Carolina for several days scanning the submissions and helping pick which ones to broadcast, said that at a minimum, the new format would prompt some excitement.

"You can't set out to make a revolutionary shift," he said. "But you can set out to push the definition of a debate."

Bohrman said he had been surprised by how few questions there were about Iraq, how broad the age range was of the questioners and how many of the videos showed a person just talking into the camera. He said that although he had expected some flashy production values and backgrounds, the simplicity of those submitted made him think more about the question.

"They will force the candidates to really connect to these people," Bohrman said. "They are very focused."

Michael Bassik, a Democratic consultant who specializes in online political advertising and is not affiliated with any campaign, said that even if the video questions boiled down to the same ones that might be asked in a traditional debate, the format had given access to people who would not normally have it.

"Whether the questions are groundbreaking is not as important as how many people will be exposed to this," Bassik said. Still, it remains up to the candidates to motivate people to vote, he said.

Jeff Jarvis, a former television critic who now blogs on media and politics on buzzmachine.com and has started a video blog called PrezVid to track the campaign, said the video debate might show mainstream journalists how to ask better questions.

"Journalists who ask questions at these debates always say to themselves, 'How can I do a gotcha moment?'" he said. Ordinary people, he said, "bring some human eloquence."

Jarvis is among many who have criticized CNN for retaining control over which videos are shown, as opposed to showing the ones viewers watch the most or rate as the best.

"It's our democracy, not yours, CNN," he said. "There is a need for order, but not control." He said that although random questions from ordinary people might show "some real turkeys," it would also show that "people really care, and democracy is in good hands."

Bohrman defended the decision, saying that having a gatekeeper would prevent the debate from becoming a circus and prevent campaigns from manipulating the process with thousands of clicks on questions they like.

He also said that now that he had seen the videos, he was "more convinced than ever" that CNN was doing the right thing and would do it the same way for the Republican debate in September.

"This way, every single question has a chance to get into this debate," he said. "I know we'll be second-guessed to death. But I want there to be more uses of new media, this year and in 2012. So it's important that we not screw it up and have politicians say, 'I'm never going to do one of those again.'"

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