Public Voice Adds Edge to Debate

By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

CHARLESTON, S.C., July 23 -- Democratic presidential candidates shared the spotlight Monday night with ordinary citizens from around the country in a two-hour debate that featured sharp and sometimes witty video questions and often equally sharp exchanges among the candidates on issues ranging from Iraq and health care to whether any of them can fix a broken political system.

The debate, co-sponsored by CNN and YouTube, underscored the arrival of the Internet as a force in politics. The citizen-interrogators generated the most diverse set of questions in any of the presidential debates to date and challenged the candidates to break out of the rhetoric of their campaign speeches and to address sometimes uncomfortable issues, such as race, gender, religion and their own vulnerabilities.

Many questions in the nationally televised session were aimed at the two leading candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), and they used the forum to challenge each other more directly than they have in past debates. But all candidates were put on the spot at one time or another, such as when asked whether, if elected president, they would work for the minimum wage. Most said they would.

Obama came close to directly criticizing Clinton's support for the Iraq war in 2002, and Clinton contradicted Obama on a question about whether, as president, they would meet with leaders of foreign governments hostile to the United States.

On Iraq, Clinton noted at one point that she had recently asked the Pentagon about planning for troop withdrawal, only to be accused of abetting the enemy. Obama then turned praise into veiled criticism of her record on Iraq.

"I think it's terrific that she's asking for plans from the Pentagon, and I think the Pentagon response was ridiculous," he said. "But what I also know is that the time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in. And that is something too many of us failed to do."

When a questioner asked whether the candidates would meet with leaders of Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela during their first year in the White House, Obama eagerly responded that he would.

"And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous," he said.

When it was Clinton's turn, she offered a more measured response, one that suggested she believed her rival had been naive in his answer. Saying she would not make such a pledge to meet with those leaders in her first year, she warned: "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse."

Sponsors had promised that the debate, held on the campus of the Citadel, would be different, and it was. Moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN introduced the videos, then followed up with his own questions aimed at pinning down the candidates and forcing them to answer the questions.

In one video, a man played guitar and sang a question about taxes (and then asked whether "one of y'all" could grant him a pardon for a recent speeding ticket). A lesbian couple asked the candidates whether they would allow them to marry.

A Boston man asked whether they supported reparations to African Americans for the enslavement of their ancestors and added: "I know you all are going to run around this question, dipping and dodging, so let's see how far you all can get." Most answered, but only Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) said he would support reparations.

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