Hesitant GOP Candidates Brace Themselves for YouTube’s Heat

After an initial stumble — perhaps related to the now-infamous YouTube snowman — most of the Republican presidential candidates will be answering video questions posed by American YouTube users in a debate similar to one their Democratic Party counterparts participated in last month. CNN, YouTube and the Republican Party of Florida have announced they will hold their Republican debate on Nov. 28.

As in the Democratic CNN/YouTube debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper will moderate the live two-hour event, which will feature video questions submitted by the general public to YouTube. The debate will be held at the Mahaffey Theatre in St. Petersburg, Fla. As of press time, YouTubers had already submitted more than 1,200 questions.

The first CNN/YouTube debate was both widely praised and criticized — praised for bringing democracy to people who had the opportunity to ask their candidates real questions and criticized for allowing a contest for the most influential office in the world to at certain points devolve into frivolous queries. At least, the questions themselves weren’t criticized so much as the manner in which they were asked — the snowman who asked about global warning and the pro-gun presenter who called an assault rifle his “baby” were the most notorious examples.

After a series of setback that some GOP campaign organizers categorized as “scheduling conflicts,” the originally scheduled Sept. 17 debate date looked as though it was set to fail entirely, and for a moment it appeared that the Republican candidates were perhaps afraid to answer questions posed by the general public.

However, the efforts of a few key political strategists and bloggers led to the schedule change.

The Back Story

Seeing that the Republican CNN/YouTube debate was in peril, Patrick Ruffini, the former Republican National Committee eCampaign director who now blogs at PatrickRuffini.com, and David All, a Republican media and Internet strategist as well as the founder of TechRepublican.com, got together over instant messaging late one night shortly after word hit the streets that the GOP candidates were seriously dismissing the CNN/YouTube debates. They came up with the beginning of a plan.

“Patrick and I devised the Save the Debate coalition. We reached out to bloggers, and it was picked up by the press and media, and it took on a life of its own,” All told TechNewsWorld.

Nothing Yet on Romney

The net result is that the debate now has the momentum to actually occur. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain were the first two candidates to agree to attend, Erin VanSickle, press secretary for the Republican Party of Florida, told TechNewsWorld. Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo are widely expected to also attend, though none are currently considered front-runners for the GOP nomination.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, who originally expressed disdain for the CNN/YouTube debate format in general, and of the snowman incident in particular, hasn’t yet committed.

“We will, of course, take the invite into consideration,” Alex Burgos, a spokesperson for the Mitt Romney campaign, told TechNewsWorld. “The proposed date is still well over three months away, so we haven’t yet finalized any schedule plans that far in advance.”

Political Power

“Mitt Romney has a lot of political capital built up. He just won the [Republican] Staw Poll, and he’s not going to answer to anyone but Mitt Romney,” All said. “So I imagine that he’ll probably come on board with the debate, but he’ll do so on his own terms. After all, I’m sure they want to ensure the format, that they have some control over the questions being asked.”

Most any political debate, particularly televised debates, are hotly negotiated behind the scenes by political campaigns, all of which want to ensure that the debate format caters to their candidate’s strengths. The Democrats’ version of the debate, however, has already set a precedent for how the event will take place. It’s unlikely that any candidate can significantly sway the ultimate format.

Either way, All noted, “These guys are getting these questions every day on the campaign trail. It’s not like you can stump a presidential candidate.

“These guys are professionals. They want to be the leaders of the free world,” he added. “They can answer any question on YouTube, even a personal attack that would never make it onto national TV — they should still be able to answer it.”

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