Embracing the Internet in all its brashness and irreverence, eight Democratic presidential hopefuls differed over Iraq, Darfur, same-sex marriage and more offbeat issues in a lively Monday-night debate driven by dozens of amateur inquisitors.
A mix of serious policy talk and sophomoric humor, the session sponsored by CNN and YouTube broke ground in style and content. The candidates responded to more than three dozen homemade videos -- including a query from a snowman asking in falsetto about global warming -- among nearly 3,000 submitted from around the world. (The candidates told the snowman they favored a more vigorous U.S. response.)
The unusual format drew the candidates out on matters rarely discussed at the presidential level, such as their children’s sex education and the willingness of at least some to work in the White House for minimum wage.
Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut joked that after a career in politics, they couldn’t afford the pay cut.
The two-hour session, on the campus of The Citadel military college in Charleston, S.C., also included a few sparks, in particular over the war in Iraq. But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect was the freewheeling format and the lively session it produced: something much more akin to a game show -- complete with commercial breaks -- than anything Lincoln or Douglas might have imagined.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania expert on political communication, called the program a milestone in the history of presidential debates. The humor in several videos inspired interest in topics that might otherwise bore viewers, she said, and so did the images of real people asking about actual troubles in their lives. “You’re less likely to lose track if you get the memory hook of the visual question,” she said.
The candidates, standing at identical lecterns, watched the videos on a giant screen to their right. The questioners appearing on-screen were alternately earnest and silly, scripted and nervously unrehearsed. They wore ball caps and sunglasses and sprinkled their questions with uhs and ums, the way people normally talk.
Whether it was the physical remove of the questioners or the uninhibited nature of the Internet, the format made for a number of unlikely moments, such as when the candidates were asked by a Planned Parenthood worker in Pennsylvania whether they had ever discussed sex with their children using “medically accurate and age-appropriate information.”
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the only candidates to respond, said they had. “We’ve taught our younger children when they were young how to look for the signs of wrong touching ... inappropriate touching,” Edwards said. “And we’ve taught our children as they got older all -- I think using medically appropriate terms -- all that they needed to know to be properly educated.”
A video from two young women in Pennsylvania put candidates on the spot by asking whether they would be willing to be paid minimum wage as president. With two daughters to educate, Dodd responded, “I don’t think I could live on the minimum wage.” He called for an increase to “at least $9 or $10.”
Edwards, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska each said they would work for the minimum wage. Obama chimed in: “We can afford to work for the minimum wage because most folks on this stage have a lot of money.” Turning to Dodd, he joked: “You’re doing all right, Chris, compared to, I promise you, the folks who are on that screen.”
Many of the questioners were unusually blunt, even belligerent. The mother of an American soldier deploying to Iraq for a second time suggested Democrats were cowering, fearful “that blame for the loss of the war will be placed on them by the Republican spin machine.”
Clinton responded by saying Democrats had “tried repeatedly to win Republican support with a simple proposition: that we need to set a timeline to begin bringing our troops home now.”
The war in Iraq dominated much of the evening, as it has at previous debates.
Obama delivered one of his sharpest jabs of the campaign when Clinton defended her recent inquiry to the Pentagon on ways to end the war. Unlike Clinton, Obama opposed the U.S. invasion from the start.
It was “terrific” that Clinton asked the Pentagon about its plans, Obama said. “I also know that the time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in, and that is something that too many of us failed to do,” he said. The partisan audience applauded. Clinton was expressionless.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called for “all the troops home by the end of this year, in six months, with no residual forces.” Biden mocked Richardson’s proposal. Raising his voice, Biden said it would be impossible to remove all U.S. forces in less than a year -- “it’s time to start to tell the truth.” He said Richardson had “better have helicopters ready” to evacuate thousands of civilians along with U.S. troops, or else leave them behind “and let them die.”
The candidates also differed over Darfur, an exchange made all the more poignant by a videotape featuring aid workers and children at a refugee camp.
“Before you answer this question,” the candidates were challenged, “imagine yourself the parent of one of these children.
“What action do you commit to that will get these children back home to a safe Darfur and not letting it be yet another empty promise?”
Richardson replied, “America needs to respond with diplomacy.” Clinton agreed. Both ruled out the deployment of U.S. ground troops.
Biden endorsed deployment. “Where we can, America must. Why Darfur? Because we can,” he said, adding that unless the U.S. acted militarily, “those kids will be dead by the time diplomacy is over.”
Not every question was posed to every candidate, so it was not always possible to draw distinctions.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio was the only candidate to endorse same-sex marriage, which came up in a video from “Mary” and “Jen” of Brooklyn, who coyly asked the candidates if they would allow the two to be married -- “to each other.”
Dodd spoke for many on the stage when he endorsed the concept of civil unions and made a strong pitch for gay rights but stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” Dodd said.
Edwards agreed. Noting that his wife, Elizabeth, supports same-sex marriage, Edwards reiterated his opposition but added, “This is a very, very difficult issue for me.”
Kucinich was also the only candidate to endorse payment of reparations for slavery. “The Bible says we shall be and must be repairers of the breach, and a breach has occurred, and we have to acknowledge that,” he said.
Obama used a more personal question a few moments later to reflect on race relations in America. A university student from Kansas asked the senator -- whose father is a black Kenyan and mother is a white Kansan -- about suggestions he is not “authentically black enough.”
Obama answered to laughter and applause: “Well, you know, when I’m catching a cab in Manhattan in the past, I think I’ve given my credentials.” Turning serious, he said: “Race permeates our society. It is still a critical problem.
“As president of the United States, my commitment on issues like education, my commitment on issues like healthcare, is to close the disparities and the gaps, because that’s what’s really going to solve the race problem in this country,” said Obama.
Clinton answered her own version of the question. Asked whether she was feminine enough, she replied, “I couldn’t run as anything other than a woman.”
Later, in response to a question about how a female president would be received in the Muslim world, Clinton ticked off a number of countries that have elected female presidents -- including Germany, Chile and Liberia -- and added, “It would be quite appropriate to have a woman president deal with the Arab and Muslim countries on behalf of the United States of America.”
Clinton drew laughter with her answer to a question from an Illinois Democratic precinct worker about concerns that “with Bush, Clinton and Bush again serving as the last three presidents, how would electing you -- a Clinton -- constitute the type of change in Washington so many people in the heartland are yearning for?”
Clinton responded: “Well, I think it is a problem that Bush was elected in 2000. You know, I actually thought somebody else was elected in that election.”
In keeping with the evening’s edginess, Biden offered a caustic response to a Michigan man who asked a question while cradling an assault-style rifle that he referred to as his “baby.”
“I tell you what, if that’s his baby, he needs help,” Biden said to applause. “I don’t know that he’s mentally qualified to own that gun.”
Later, Biden added, “I hope he doesn’t come looking for me.”
Mixed into the debate were a series of Web videos produced by the campaigns. Dodd’s featured an interviewer asking him, “What’s with the white hair?” -- with a white hare positioned prominently in the foreground. Dodd responded, deadpan, that his snowy mane might be due to his hard work in the Senate.
Biden took a more solemn approach, with an ad-style video on Iraq that highlighted his vow “to end this war responsibly so our children don’t have to go back.”
Obama’s video, with rock music in the background, showed quick clips of him before crowds of supporters, saying, “We’re tired of fear, we’re tired of division, we want something new.”
Clinton’s ad, a series of hand-lettered signs, ended with one suggesting “Sometimes the best man for a job is a woman.”