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Originally published July 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 23, 2007 at 3:16 PM

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YouTube debate changes the rules

In tonight's first-of-its-kind U.S. presidential debate, candidates will answer questions submitted by YouTube users on video.

San Jose Mercury News

Postman, Westneat analyze the debate

Is today's much-touted YouTube Democratic presidential debate a groundbreaking way to engage the electorate, or just a flashy new format with little new substance?

Join Seattle Times chief political reporter David Postman and columnist Danny Westneat as they dissect the CNN/YouTube debate online and on TV immediately after the broadcast. They and their guests will take your calls and e-mails during the program, which will stream live on seattletimes.com and be broadcast on TVW, Comcast channel 23.

The debate airs from 4 to 6 p.m. on CNN. Our program starts at 6 p.m.

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Yes, this is still the YouTube you know and love: The guys from redstateupdate.com want the male Democratic candidates to take off their shirts for an abs contest.

The odds are CNN will not choose that video to air at tonight's first-of-its-kind U.S. presidential debate in which candidates will answer questions submitted by YouTube users on video. But along with the wackiness, YouTube users are showing their serious side for a chance to have a voice in the presidential race. The GOP candidates will get their turn in September.

The CNN-YouTube debate is being heralded for turning a new page in presidential politics, beginning to transform staid debates into an endeavor taken in the spirit of YouTube: technology-driven, a little offbeat and with voters at the controls.

More than 2,000 video questions have been submitted, representing a cross-section of issues and coming from as far away as Spain, Panama and Chad.

CNN editors, including tonight's debate moderator, CNN host Anderson Cooper, will select as many as four dozen to air in the two-hour broadcast from Charleston, S.C. But the submissions, which must be 30 seconds or less, can be viewed at Youtube.com.

Some are wacky, some are rants, but most are from people asking real-life questions. Among them: a question on the crisis in Darfur, filmed from inside refugee camps, and one about health insurance, delivered by a woman with breast cancer.

Then there is the seven-second snippet of a black cat with a caption asking: "How can you protect my food in the future?"

Cat owner Brandon Mendolson, a 24-year-old grad student in New York, said he is concerned for his six cats, including Molly, who appears in the video, after the recent recall of contaminated pet food. He doesn't even plan to watch the debate but hopes that enough people will find his video on YouTube and e-mail their representatives about the issue.

It's uncertain how many, like Mendolson, will skip the debate, or if more viewers will tune in to CNN for the novelty of it all. And many will measure the success of the debate by whether voters glean more about the candidates in this unconventional format.

But many political observers say it's a worthwhile foray to shake up the political dialogue using popular video-sharing technology.

As is the hallmark of YouTube, some of the more compelling videos and their makers are already becoming something of cult figures, if reluctant ones.

Consider Kim, the 35-year-old cancer patient from Long Island, who in her poignant video pulls off her wig to reveal the effects of chemotherapy.

"I don't really want extra publicity unless CNN is doing it, at least not before the debate," she wrote in an e-mail denying a formal interview. "I'm afraid if too much info about me gets out there, I won't be the 'everywoman' and my video might not get picked."

The John Edwards and Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigns stepped up soliciting video questions to their own Web sites.

"Everyone is in search of the right multimedia solution; politics is no different," said Barbara O'Connor, director of California State University-Sacramento's Institute for the Study of Politics and Media.

It's a clever way to "capture CNN's hard-news junkies and YouTube junkies," but she added, "The danger with that is that a lot of people don't subscribe to cable and we have a digital divide in broadband. We're certainly in a different age than when the networks pre-empted programming for a debate."

Not surprising for the digital age, there is a debate — mostly fueled in the blogosphere — over the debate itself. On YouTube, users typically rate videos, giving more exposure to collective favorites. But for this debate, CNN — not YouTube users — will pare down the hundreds of submissions, a violation of the spirit of YouTube, some say.

"Our expectation was that they were really going to use the Web and let the wisdom of the crowd help drive politics in a more democratic way," said David Colarusso, a Massachusetts physics teacher.

CNN political director Sam Feist said the network wants the debate "to look and feel different" but still be serious, requiring some judiciousness.

He may have a point: One of the video submissions most viewed by YouTube users was a send-up by a self-described debate "crasher" from Canada who suggests that Californians elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice because "a cyborg of his nature could stop a future nuclear war."

Cognizant of the dangers of the anonymity of the Internet, especially for a reputable news organization, CNN is requiring all submissions aired to include the video makers' name and hometown.

The debate format "is more democratic than ever," said Steve Grove, YouTube's news and politics editor. "Politicians are hearing the hearts and minds of the American people in new ways."

Submissions trickled in during the past three weeks and have increased voluminously since CNN began heavily advertising the debate last week.

YouTube also has been encouraging users to take their video cameras to places, such as nursing homes or community centers, where people are not steeped in YouTube culture, or possibly don't even have computers.

Peter Leyden, whose San Francisco-based New Politics Institute encourages progressive politicians to jump on new-media opportunities, said this first video-based debate "is more symbolic of the potential than actual performance." People also will be watching to see if the candidates provide new insights or plod the same old ground.

"If they give the same answers as they would have to Wolf Blitzer or Brian Williams, it may be less revolutionary than we thought," CNN's Feist said.

Still, others say the YouTube format is generating a platform for much more in-depth and ongoing dialogue than usually accompanies presidential forums.

Nelson Walker, 84, of Saratoga, Calif., has been toiling away for three years to get publicity for his cause: congressional term limits. "I know my question has just about zero chance of being used. It's not a subject that is of great interest. But I hope I can get some attention for my Web site."

And, say Internet wunderkinds, the professionals should embrace, not discount, the value of YouTube's offbeat nature.

James Kotecki, 21, whose political videos, including interviews of candidates last spring from his Georgetown University dorm room, made him a YouTube hit, said: "Part of the zaniness is what makes YouTube endearing. It may make the debate a lot more interesting and a less formal affair."

Speaking of that, the two guys from want an abs contest:

"It's a YouTube debate," the video says. "If they want anybody to pay attention to them, some shirts are going to have to come off."

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