Web Videos Aim Questions At GOP Field

A Snowball Effect
SOURCE: | The Washington Post - November 27, 2007
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Among the thousands of videos uploaded on YouTube for tomorrow's GOP debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., a question lasting no more than three seconds may prove to be one of the toughest: "What does the word 'Republican' mean to you?"

Tomorrow night, after months of delay caused at least in part by candidates' concerns about the format, the Republican contenders will face their version of the CNN/YouTube debate. As with the first YouTube debate four months ago, when the Democratic candidates fielded questions from, among others, a talking snowman that asked about global warming, the GOP candidates aren't entirely sure how to prepare.

"We don't know what to expect," said Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.).

The period for submitting questions via YouTube video ended yesterday, and almost 5,000 were offered up as fodder for the debate. The videos are as diverse as the questioners themselves, coming from all ages and backgrounds, and from Republicans and Democrats alike. In one, a black woman from Dallas, soon to be out of college and lamenting that she needs to learn Spanish to secure a job, asks how the candidates feel about non-English-speaking immigrants. In another, a middle-age man from Tucson, sitting in his wheelchair, asks about stem cell research. A gay Republican from Atlanta asks: "How can we make the Republican Party a more large, open tent?"

Other questions, many of them pointed, are directed to specific candidates. A former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asks former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon, if he agrees with the belief of the church that people who don't have white skin have been cursed by God for the sins of their forefathers.

There are plenty of offbeat questions. Billiam the snowman is back, this time joined by the likes of Mr. Potato Head and a hand puppet named Mojo. Rep. Ron Paul's loyal, Web-savvy supporters uploaded dozens of videos, all them flattering to the Texas congressman.

But perhaps most striking are offerings from disgruntled Republicans questioning what their party, locked in a fluid and unpredictable primary battle, really stands for.

Said Cynthia Zinn, 22, a mother of two who uploaded a question about abortion: "I'm not entirely sure who to support. Giuliani is pro-choice; I can't support a Republican who's pro-choice. Thompson scares me because he doesn't support a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage. And Romney. Well, Romney has flip-flopped so much that I don't know what to believe."

Tomorrow's debate has also mobilized conservative groups such as Young America's Foundation, the College Republican National Committee and FreedomWorks, chaired by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.), to rally their members, said Steve Grove, head of YouTube's news and politics section. Many high schools and colleges have also submitted videos.

"That's what jumped out to us here at YouTube," Grove said. "The debate isn't just an opportunity for individuals. It's a chance for groups -- and schools -- to organize and engage in real grass-roots activism."

The debate format is the same as it was for Democrats in July. CNN's political team will review the submissions and choose about 40 videos. David Bohrman, the network's Washington bureau chief and the mastermind behind the format, said he heard from two campaigns -- he would not name which -- expressing concerns about the selection process and the perceived liberal bias of CNN, dubbed by many conservatives the "Clinton News Network."

"Some of the Republican candidates don't trust us. They're not completely convinced that we're going to wean out the Democratic 'gotcha' questions," Bohrman said. "But I've been very clear from the beginning: This will be a Republican debate, and the goal is to let Republican voters see their candidates."

This has been a year of innovation in politics. After the first CNN-YouTube debate in July, the Huffington Post teamed with Slate (which is owned by The Washington Post) and Yahoo for the first online "mash-up" debate. Then MTV and MySpace launched the first instant-messaging forums for the presidential candidates, where online viewers can send questions, in real time, to the contenders.

In some quarters of the blogosphere, the CNN and YouTube marriage -- YouTube collects the videos, but CNN decides which questions are asked -- has been greeted coldly. Complaints included that the format is too TV-centric and remains sound-bite-driven.

In response, a high school physics teacher in Massachusetts started a site, Community Counts, to show CNN another way it could be done. A few weeks ago, TechPresident, a blog that tracks how the candidates are campaigning on the Web, teamed up with Community Counts, MSNBC and the editorial board of the New York Times to create 10Questions.com, a site where users vote on which questions candidates should answer. "Now this is a true people-powered online forum," said TechPresident co-founder Andrew Rasiej.

Some of the Republican candidates weren't thrilled with the format, either. Rudolph W. Giuliani, who dominates the GOP field in national polls, and Romney, who leads in early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire, were slow to accept CNN and YouTube's invitation. Days after the Democratic debate in July, Romney told the New Hampshire Union Leader: "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman."

Criticism aside, CNN's Bohrman said the format is "the most direct way for people everywhere -- real people -- to participate in the debates." Not everyone is on the Internet or wants to upload videos on YouTube, he added, and the debate's broadcast on TV allows more people to watch the candidates.

He hopes the format will be given another chance after nominees are decided. "I would love it if we had YouTube debates after the conventions," Bohrman said. "But whether the Commission on Presidential Debates will go there, we'll see."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company