CNN's first YouTube debate, featuring the eight Democratic presidential candidates, was part global town meeting, part entertainment, part gee-whiz technological spectacle and a considerable amount of the same old thing.
The obvious risk was that the gimmickry of the format would overshadow anything interesting the candidates might have to say. But the idea of allowing "normal" Americans to pose questions directly to the candidates -- if only via pre-recorded videos on YouTube -- turned out to be more than just a novelty act.
This back-and-forth between the eight Democrats and the huge screen stage-left where the videos were projected proved to be a provocative exchange. It was just different enough to throw the candidates off their packaged, cautious and tested responses to the usual questions posed in debates.
At least that was the effect some of the time. Even with the odd format, these are seasoned politicians, used to fielding all sorts of questions in all sorts of settings, and they are adept at avoiding both the suicidal gaffes or the answers that reveal too much or position them too far from the mainstream.
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This format offered a glimpse into how each candidate thinks on his or her feet. It gave viewers the chance to see how the eight Democrats react to humorous questions, biting questions, sarcastic questions and questions designed specifically to trip them up.
How, for example, did they respond to the question of whether troops in Iraq have died In vain? Very carefully, with the exception of former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, who is the self-professed truth-teller and bomb-thrower on stage. He said that, yes, they had died in vain.
But those hoping that this debate, held in Charleston at The Citadel, would devolve into a cat-fight were disappointed. The candidates, for the most part, seemed to hew to Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: Thou shalt speak no ill of fellow party members.
The differences among the candidates were largely ones of degree rather than substance. Regarding Iraq, the argument was not over whether to withdraw troops but how long it would reasonably take to do so. The argument was not over whether the nation needs comprehensive health-care reform but whether the various proposed plans actually provide universal coverage.
The suggestion that this debate was an unfiltered exchange between average Americans and the candidates is something of a sham. Thousands of videos were screened by CNN officials and culled to the few that could be used in the two-hour debate. And one of the most talked-about videos -- one featuring two Tennesseeans asking about whether Al Gore would run for president -- was concocted by a couple of professional disc jockeys, not "normal" Americans.
This format probably will seem stale after a few more debates. But for now, early in the presidential campaign when many voters still are shopping for candidates, it provides an interesting twist to traditional debate style.
And take note: The Republican candidates will get their shot at a CNN YouTube debate on Sept. 17 in Florida.
Format for Monday's debate allowed average people to ask questions.
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