Power to the People (With Webcams)

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007; 11:20 AM

Not everyone loved the YouTubers, but most of the reviews have given a thumbs-up to the highly personal and sometimes wacky questions posed to the presidential candidates through the magic of video.

If you're a TV anchor, you may find next time there's a debate that your job has been outsourced to a snowman, the guy in the Viking helmet and other assorted amateurs armed with webcams.

Here's what I liked: It is so much harder for a politician to give a robo-answer when two women are sitting on the porch and asking why they can't get married. Or a father is describing how his son was killed in Iraq and he doesn't want to lose his other son. Or a gun owner is asking whether you want to take his baby away. Or Obama is asked whether he's authentically black. It just shifts the frame from the usual journalist-candidate discourse to a more personal level of conversation.

But inevitably, political pundits are hard-wired to ask the question "Who won?" In my view, that's a simplistic question in an eight-candidate debate, as opposed to a one-on-one face-off. But you can never entirely take the horses out of the horse race. So let's take a spin through the coverage of both the video questions and the answers.

Slate's John Dickerson likes the format:

"The highly hyped experiment in user generated content worked. In the privacy of their homes people were at ease and their videos reflected that. They sounded human. Had the same people been standing in the auditorium at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina asking questions they would have frozen up or tried to sound too polished.

"Sure some of the videos were so washed out it made you want to dial 911 to report a hostage taking. The whimsical videos were also not good: a talking snowman, two rednecks, and a heavy metal ditty about No Child Left Behind were awful in that special embarrassing way usually reserved for parents who try too hard to show their children they're hip. But what the majority of the nearly forty YouTube videos provided was authenticity which is usually as hard to find in presidential debates as humility . . . In one powerful question a woman being treated for breast cancer removed her wig."

Dickerson's rankings: "Hillary Clinton: She's like a machine. (I mean that in a good way.) In four debates, Hillary Clinton has been commanding and made only small mistakes . . .

"Barack Obama: This was perhaps Obama's best night of the four debates so far. He gave solid answers and seemed more decisive and declarative, something that has been missing in previous forums. He was funny and knew how to pivot in his answers, which is one way candidates convey a sense of command to voters. In three different instances, he took personal questions--about whether he is black enough, whether he'd work for the minimum wage and whether he sends his daughters to public school--and turned them effortlessly in to responses to larger issues . . .

"If Clinton is not going to make mistakes, Obama has to take her on."

Roger Simon gives the night to the man from North Carolina:

"John Edwards has found a theme: He is angry and he is on your side. He is bold and he will use his boldness for you . . .

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