Average citizen is star of debate

Times Staff Writers

Free-wheeling video questions from ordinary citizens put a fresh spark into the staid ritual of presidential debates this week, with everything from a talking snowman to a guy cradling a rifle he called “my baby.”

By remaking the debate format into something more akin to “American Idol” than “Meet the Press,” Monday’s CNN/YouTube presentation could inspire thousands who normally ignore such events to tune in to the many that lie ahead, Democratic and Republican.

The new approach presented heightened risks for the candidates. It was no longer enough to master their policy positions. Faced with often emotion-charged, highly personal questions, they had to master the live-theater art of showing just the right feelings and enough wit to come across as authentic, appealing human beings.

By nearly all accounts, the YouTube videos produced more compelling television than traditional debates in which journalists pose questions. That means White House contenders of both major parties are likely to face similar pressures if sponsors of future debates embrace Web videos to enliven them.


With its earnest input from average Americans in their homes, Monday’s program marked a significant turn in the evolution of presidential debates, a Web-era update of the “town hall” format that first gained favor among political strategists in 1992. The home settings of the videos personalized many questions, including one on healthcare from a woman with breast cancer who removed her wig to display the baldness wrought by chemotherapy.

If not a revolution, it was at least a significant development in a process that has grown more open to voter input and less driven by political professionals and Washington pundits.

“The American citizen is now star of the show,” said Dennis Trainor, 37, a Massachusetts voter who, in his Web video, asked Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio why he would make a better president than his more prominent opponents.

Looming over these new debates is fear of the sort of trap that ensnared Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, when his response to a question on the potential rape of his wife struck many viewers as too legalistic and cold.

Also, opposition strategists are sure to seek ways to game the system, trying to plant video questions designed to catch rivals off guard.

“You’ll find a farmer in Iowa, but then, guess what: You’ll find he’s on the payroll” of an anti-tax group, said Rich Bond, who was political director of George H.W. Bush’s campaign against Dukakis.

“If you were the campaign, wouldn’t you do everything, within the law obviously, to try to have your supporters at the microphone, appearing spontaneous, either throwing curve balls, or throwing hardballs at your opponents?” Bond said.

The debate Monday may not have shifted the broad dynamics of the Democratic race, but it did produce lively exchanges on major issues. Some lingered.


One video question triggered a daylong spat Tuesday between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois: Would they be willing to meet during their first year as president with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea? Obama said he would.

On Tuesday, Clinton seized on that answer to press an argument that was a staple of her campaign -- that she was a strong, seasoned leader and her chief rival was not. Obama’s answer, she told an Iowa newspaper, was “irresponsible and frankly naive.”

Obama’s team, in turn, likened his stand to President Nixon’s diplomatic opening to China and President Reagan’s talks with leaders of the Soviet Union.

But it was the unique nature of Monday’s debate that drew the most attention Tuesday. Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, called it a revolutionary transformation.


“The whole style in which the candidates answer, it’s not the same as dealing with the Washington press corps or network anchors,” he said. He recalled the moment when two Brooklyn women asked the candidates: “Would you allow us to be married -- to each other?”

“It’s going to be a much more personal and emotional response,” Cole said.

That can help candidates or hurt them. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware showed strong feeling in responding to the man with the rifle, questioning whether he was “mentally qualified” to possess a gun.

Biden also mocked a Colorado man’s request to say what he disliked about an opponent. “I think this is a ridiculous exercise,” Biden said.


Those responses could cut different ways with different voters.

Perhaps sensing the danger, candidates often resorted to familiar answers. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina offered his routine response on same-sex marriage, which he opposes: He told the audience he felt “enormous personal conflict” on the matter.

The heavily promoted debate was not the most watched of the 2008 campaign; it drew an average of 2.6 million viewers. But of the debates so far, it drew the largest audience of viewers ages 18 to 34. Its highly favorable reception in the media could spike interest in future events, including the Republican debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube in September.

Kathleen Barr, research director of Young Voter Strategies, a nonpartisan group that encourages candidates to appeal to younger voters, said that future debates featuring Web videos would probably attract many who were turned off by the standard candidate forum.


“Young adults in general have a very low threshold for canned answers,” she said.

Former MSNBC executive Mark Effron, now senior vice president at TitanTV Media, said the Web videos forced candidates “to respond on a different level with maybe a different part of their brain.”

“They’re talking less to the ‘Meet the Press’ crowd, and you feel like you’re tapping into something that’s less filtered,” he said. “

And, said Leonard Brody, chief executive of NowPublic .com, a website that uses amateur reporters to collect news, “In prior elections and debates, you never would have seen some of these people. That guy with the gun would not have been there. I think it’s laying the foundation to change debates fundamentally for years to come.”


Fred Davis, chief creative consultant to the presidential campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said the entertainment value of such debates was apt to attract more public interest -- in the same way that a campaign ad must grab viewers to be effective.

“If nobody’s watching it,” Davis said, “then why spend your money on it?”



Finnegan reported from Washington, Gold from New York. Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and James Rainey contributed to this report.