CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) – Young, Internet-savvy voters challenged Democratic presidential hopefuls on Iraq, the military draft and the candidates’ own place in a broken political system, playing starring roles in a provocative, video-driven debate Monday night.
“Wassup?” came the first question, from a voter named Zach, after another, named Chris, opened the CNN-YouTube debate with a barb aimed at the entire eight-candidate field: “Can you as politicians … actually answer questions rather than beat around the bush?”
The answer was a qualified yes.
The candidates faced a slew of blunt questions – from earnest to the ridiculous – and, in many cases, responded in kind.
To Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois: Are you black enough? “You know, when I’m catching a cab in Manhattan … I’m giving my credentials,” he replied.
To Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York: Are you feminine enough? “I couldn’t run as anything other than a woman,” she said.
Her answer drew a challenge from former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who said he was the best advocate for women on the debate stage. “I have the strongest, boldest ideas,” he said.
Posing a question that few, if any, of the candidates had fielded before, one voter asked whether young women should register for the draft as do young men. Clinton, Obama and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said yes.
The debate featured questions submitted to the online video community YouTube and screened by the all-news cable TV network. A talking snowman, two rednecks and a woman speaking from her bathroom were among the odd, 21st-century twists to the oldest forum in politics – a debate.
A Clio, Mich., man asked about gun control while brandishing an automatic weapon.
“He needs help,” Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware snapped.
When was the last time a presidential candidate was forced to promise to work at minimum wage? That is effectively what seemed to happen when a voter asked whether the candidates would serve four years at $5.85 an hour rather than the president’s annual $400,000 salary.
“Sure,” replied Clinton.
Obama said they group could afford to do so. When Dodd started to protest, Obama cut him off with a joke, “You’re doing OK, Chris.”
The gathering was held at the military college of The Citadel in South Carolina, site of one of the earliest primaries – Jan. 29. Fittingly, the Democrats skirmished over the Iraq war, as they have before.
Asked if Democrats are playing politics with the war, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said yes. “The Democrats have failed the people,” he said.
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel said U.S. soldiers are dying in vain. No other candidate would go that far.
Obama took the opportunity to take a slap at his rivals who voted to give Bush authority to invade Iraq, including Clinton and Edwards. “The time to ask how we’re going to get out of Iraq was before we got in,” he said, without naming Clinton, Edwards and other foes.
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico said he’s the only candidate pledging to remove troops within six months. “Our troops have become targets,” he said. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware said Richardson’s goal was unrealistic.
Sensing her position was under attack, Clinton bristled as she argued that U.S. troops must be removed from Iraq “safely and orderly and carefully.”
On another foreign policy topic, Biden said he would send 2,500 U.S. troops to Darfur to try to end the civil war there. It took three tries to get Clinton to answer the same questions. She finally said U.S. ground troops don’t belong in the fight because they are overextended in Iraq.
She also refused to call herself a liberal. “I prefer the word progressive, which has a very American meaning,” she said.
Clinton, Obama and Edwards lead in most polls of the Democratic field.
The opening question challenged Democrats to do better than the failed leadership in Congress and the White House. “How are you going to be any different?” the voter asked.
Obama, a freshmen lawmaker trying to appeal to the public’s thirst for change, replied, “One of the things I bring is a perspective … that says Washington has to change.”
Clinton claimed she has a 35-year-record as an agent of change. “The issue is which one of us will be ready from Day One.”
The Democratic gathering marked a turning point in political communications. CNN, a landmark all-news cable network when founded 27 years ago, is now part of a media establishment coming to terms with upstarts like the 21/2-year-old online video community.
The debate aside, YouTube has already left its mark on politics. Republican George Allen lost his Senate seat and a likely spot in the 2008 presidential race after a YouTube video caught him referring to a man of South Asian decent as “macaca” – an ethnic slur in some countries.
In the presidential campaign, buzz-worthy video clips have included Bill and Hillary Clinton’s spoof of “The Sopranos” finale, Edwards’ combing his hair to the tune “I Feel Pretty,” and a buxom model professing her crush on Obama.
Most of the candidates use social networking tools popularized by YouTube and MySpace.com to draw voters to their sites and create a sense of community. At least two of the Democratic candidates planned to answers supporters’ questions on their sites after the debate.
In the spirit of the era, each candidate was asked to produce his or her own video.
Edwards’ video poked fun at the attention paid to his pricey haircuts at the expense of more serious issues. Set to the theme from the 1968 musical “Hair,” the video opens with several close-up of hairdos, giving way to less frivolous images including several from Iraq. It ends with a white-on-black slide: “What really matters? You Choose”
Clinton’s video-ad ended with the kicker, “Sometimes the best man for a job is a woman.”
The debate’s moderator, Anderson Cooper of CNN, asked who took a jet to the debate. Gravel was one of the few who did not raise his hand; he arrived by bus and train.