GOP YouTube Debates: Good Marks for New Views of Candidates

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In the end, Republican presidential candidates didn't face any questions from talking snowmen.

But this week's CNN/YouTube debate lived up to its billing as a free wheeling forum, with the candidates responding to videos that represented the diversity of the nation - from an Alabama woman in a burqa to a fisherman in Cambridge, Md., to a man wielding a Bible asking if the candidates "believe every word of this book."

Now that both parties have held debates featuring citizen- generated videos - the Democrats had theirs in July - observers of the Internet and politics have concluded that the format is here to stay and that it is a boon to voters who benefit from that sense of connection between citizens and their leaders. Candidates reveal views and aspects of themselves that might not necessarily have come through in a more traditional format, with journalists and TV anchors asking the questions, they note.

"When a Tim Russert or a Wolf Blitzer asks a question and a candidate dodges it, there are no real consequences to the candidates," says Michael Cornfield, an adjunct professor in political management at George Washington University, in Washington, DC. "It's harder for them to dodge questions from real people."

On Wednesday night, viewers learned just how committed some of the Republican candidates are to keeping gays out of the military. They learned how hostile Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo is toward legal guest workers - even when addressing a small businessman who says his livelihood depends on them. They learned that former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who tends to eschew questions on religion on the campaign trail, can speak comfortably about his view of the Bible. (Some parts are interpretive, some are allegorical, and some are meant to be interpreted "in a modern context," he said.)

The debate also provided the latest forum for the smackdown that Mr. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have been engaging in for weeks over immigration. CNN set the table by selecting videos dealing with that issue to open the debate. But the two GOP front-runners seemed more than happy to oblige, with each insisting the other was providing a "sanctuary" for illegal immigrants during their time as mayor and governor.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of the debate was that it happened at all. When CNN and YouTube proposed a forum for the Republican candidates like the one staged for the Democrats, Mr. Romney and Giuliani cited scheduling conflicts. Romney also balked at the idea of taking a question from an animated snowman, as the Democrats had in their YouTube debate. He called it demeaning.

When the September YouTube debate for the Republicans was canceled, the GOP blogosphere lit up. …