Public Voice Adds Edge to Debate
Democrats Face Questions from Internet Users in Unorthodox Format

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.

Would Clinton, one questioner asked, really be able to negotiate with Middle Eastern nations that give all their power to men? "I believe that there isn't much doubt in anyone's mind that I can be taken seriously," she said.

To Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), one voter asked: Which Republican would you pick as a vice president if you had to? He named Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.). Obama was asked whether he is "authentically black," and said he proved his racial bona fides whenever he tried to hail a cab in New York.

The candidates also produced videos, which were interspersed throughout the debate. Many were standard campaign ads, while Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) tried to turn his white mane into a proxy for experience, which he says is his strongest attribute.

Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) used his video to take on the issue of his $400 haircuts. His 30-second video, set to the song "Hair," mocked the controversy and ended with a screen that read: "What really matters? You choose."

The Kansas University student who asked Obama whether he is sufficiently black asked Clinton to respond to commentary that she is not "satisfactorily feminine." She responded to laughter, "I couldn't run as anything other than a woman."

Then she turned the answer toward her principal campaign message. "Obviously, I'm not running because I'm a woman. I'm running because I think I'm the most qualified and experienced person to hit the ground running in January 2009."

Edwards was asked by Cooper whether he agreed with his wife, Elizabeth, who said last week that she believes her husband would be a better advocate for women than Clinton. "Senator Clinton has a long history of speaking out on behalf of women," he said. "She deserves to be commended for that. But I believe that on the issues that directly affect women's lives, I have the strongest, boldest ideas and can bring about the change that needs to be brought."

Clinton was far more circumspect in responding to a question from a Democratic precinct committeeman from Illinois. He noted that if she were elected and served two terms, the country would go through 28 years with a Bush or a Clinton in the White House.

"How would electing you, a Clinton, constitute the type of change in Washington so many people in the heartland are yearning for?" he asked.

Clinton responded with humor that drew applause from the largely Democratic audience. "Well, I think it was a problem that Bush was elected in 2000." But she never took on the question of how her candidacy would represent real change.

Iraq and health care produced sharp differences among the candidates. Biden passionately called out three senatorial rivals for voting against the recently passed Iraq funding bill, saying they had voted against funds for safer military vehicles that might prevent more U.S. soldiers from being killed.

"How in good conscience can you vote not to send those vehicles over there as long as there's one single, solitary troop there?" he thundered.

He also challenged New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for suggesting that he could bring all the troops out of Iraq by the end of this year. "There is not a single military man in this audience who will tell this senator [sic] he can get those troops out in six months if the order goes today," Biden said.

Edwards said Obama's health-care plan would not achieve universal coverage and passionately called for action after relating the story of a man he had met who had waited 50 years to have surgery for a cleft palate. "For five decades, [he] lived in the richest nation on the planet, not able to talk because he couldn't afford the procedure that would've allowed him to talk. When are we going to stand up and do something about this?"

Former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska) once again played the role of scourge, attacking Obama for the way he has raised money -- a charge Obama quickly sought to rebut -- while complaining that he was being ignored through most of the debate.

Kornblut reported from Washington.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company