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YouTube debate definitely not politics as usual

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani
REUTERS/Jason Reed
Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney (left) and Rudy Giuliani talk after the GOP debate in Dearborn, Mich., last month. Will the recent Romney-Giuliani feuding continue at tonight’s debate?


Will the snowman appear again asking about global warming?

Will the Republican presidential candidates have to answer a question from Democratic candidate Sen. Chris Dodd?

Will the recent Mitt Romney-Rudy Giuliani feuding continue?

In St. Petersburg, Fla., the eight GOP candidates, some reluctantly, meet the hi-tech generation in the CNN/YouTube debate at 7 tonight. Following the format of the July Democratic CNN/YouTube debate, the Republicans will answer about 40 video questions chosen by CNN from more than 3,500 submitted. They run the gamut from gay rights to gun control to national security to the environment.

“The White House hopefuls — accustomed to the political tradition of stump speeches followed by queries from journalists — have no idea exactly what to expect,” reports CNN. “Each of the eight will answer to real people displayed on a 25-foot screen. The candidates will have to deal with the person asking the question as if that person were in the room.”

Will such a national conversation be more entertainment than substance?

Not at all, said University of Minnesota Political Science Professor Larry Jacobs. “It is a sign of the times. It is serious business,” he said in an interview. “The debate is an acknowledgement of the importance of the Internet in politics now and in the future…YouTube is one of the most effective ways to reach a large Internet audience.”

He said that one of the problems candidates have had is to not taking the Internet seriously. They should not treat the Internet format as a joke, he said. “It’s important for the candidates to be authentic.” Jacobs plans to watch the debate closely.

The Democratic CNN/YouTube debate featured an animated snowman, created by Greg Hamel and Nathan Hamel of Minneapolis, asking candidates a question about global warming. Another snowman video has been submitted for tonight’s GOP debate, but CNN is not saying if it will be aired.


New format — new responses?
Across town at Macalester College, Political Science Professor Adrienne Christiansen said the debate has “the potential of engaging a part of the electorate who haven’t been engaged, that is young people. The vast majority of YouTube and Internet users are under 30. You get normal people asking questions who don’t normally get to ask them. You might get a young mother asking about child care, for example. What TV moderators are interested in is quite different from what normal everyday people are interested in.”

While Christiansen is encouraged by the new format and what it can provide, she said that the Democratic candidates last summer didn’t respond to questions “in any new way. They didn’t respond in any fundamentally different way,” giving standard campaign answers and failing to acknowledge the new media world in which they were debating. She hopes the Republican candidates react differently, but is not confident they will. And she also hopes that questions some of her students submitted for the debate are used.

The new format debate has spurred new ways of covering it as well. Student journalists from Michigan State University in conjunction with the Detroit News will use “clickers” to respond to professors’ questions, a form of real time polling the results of which will appear on the paper’s web site. Other students will blog about the debate.

And to underscore the point that the merger of politics and new media is here to stay, ABC News and Facebook, the popular social networking site, have joined forces and will sponsor the Republican and Democratic Presidential debates in New Hampshire Jan. 5, three days before the important primary in that state.

This is definitely not your father’s political campaign.

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.

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