Republican candidates are gearing up for a fight in St. Petersburg at Wednesday night’s CNN/YouTube debate, as critical mailers and rhetorical punches have begun to fly with just five weeks to go until primary voting kicks off.
This is the debate that almost wasn’t. Republican candidates, skeptical of the user-generated questions and how they’d be chosen, at first declined invitations, but changed their minds after a flurry of debate within the right-wing blogosphere and mainstream media.
David Bohrman, CNN’s D.C. Bureau chief and mastermind of the CNN/YouTube collaboration, is glad the candidates decided to jump in:
“I think, by and large, the campaigns are nervous,” he said. “It’s out of everyone’s comfort zone. But I think it was inevitable that they had to really do it. There was a lot of concern expressed that it wasn’t presidential enough,” but Bohrman assured them questioning would be respectful.
Of course, given the recent question-planting in Hillary’s campaign and CNN’s failure to disclose the affiliations of some of its “undecided voters” in the Democrat debate in Las Vegas, I had some concerns of my own.
Q: Things are heating up on both primary sides right about now. How does it feel to know you’re walking into a slugfest?
AC: “You know, you never know what it’s gonna end up being like. It’ll certainly be interesting…rhetoric’s been heating up.”
Q: Why do it? Why does a YouTube debate matter, and what does it mean for politics in ’08—this democratization of politics?
AC: “I’m not sure where it’s going. It’s definitely changing things, I think. I’ve watched basically all the debates since the first YouTube debate—all had some kind of user-generated content, I think…”
“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s the way it goes.
“But once you’ve seen the possibilities, it’s pretty interesting, and technology’s only going to improve.”
Q: A lot of people I’ve heard talk about past debates have complained that the conversation is pretty superficial. Do you think YouTube contributions help with that or exacerbate that?
AC: “At this point, no one can say they don’t know these candidates' positions… It cuts both ways…on the one hand you end up with questions that maybe wouldn’t normally be asked to a candidate, which I think is good…On the other hand, the person (asking the question) is not there. The candidate can use the video as a jumping-off point to whatever he wants to say.”
He added that there’s an authenticity that comes with participation from regular Americans. The questions they’re asking mean something to them and that comes through in the format, he said.
Q: CNN got a little bit of flack for using a question from an animated snowman last time around. Any cartoon questioners this time around?
AC: “We’re open to whatever’s out there. I see nothing wrong with having some levity in there.”
DB: “There’s nothing wrong about a little sense of humor…My God, I saw George Bush pardon a turkey the other day, so not everything has to be serious.”
Q: Will Jackie and Dunlap ever be elevated to actual moderators?
AC: “(Laughter) I don’t know about having them…I’d like to get to a point where there can be real-time feedback between candidate and viewer.”
DB: “They’re really funny. They have a hilarious Ron Paul question.”
There was criticism about debate questions not being picked by YouTubers themselves, Cooper said, but CNN was unable to figure out how to manage that without campaign operatives and supporters pumping their own candidates’ questions up. He said CNN would like to come up with a way to include more audience participation in the future.
Q: So, now, it’s just a CNN team picking questions? Who’s on the team?
Cooper said it’s him and David Bohrman and two or three others people who are deciding on the final questions.
As of Monday, they were still picking.
DB: “We’re still winnowing…There are 200 or so questions in what we call the bucket, and we have to get that down to 50 or 60.”
Q: There’s been a bit of scandal about the screening that CNN did on its “undecided voters” for the last Democratic debate. The diamonds-and-pearls question was attacked by the questioner herself. There were some allegations that several of the voters were in fact liberal activists on quite a few issues (and one possible Democratic Party operative). What’s the process for checking these YouTube questioners and their affiliations?
AC: “Well, campaign operatives are people, too. We don’t investigate the background of people asking questions…that’s not our job. Last time around (in the Democrat CNN/YouTube debate), there were questions from Joe Biden’s campaign…and we had some fun with that (disclosing who they were posed by). Things like that are generally pretty obvious. In watching these videos after a while, you can kind of tell, who’s really serious about an issue and who’s just parroting a press release or a talking point.”
DB: “If it’s a loaded question, we’ll click back and check…some need vetting, and we’ll do that.”
“We’re doing the best we can…but if a question is interesting on its face, it almost doesn’t matter.”
Q: One of the criticisms the Right faces is it’s not active enough on the web, and to some extent, it’s true that websites like YouTube are populated by liberals. What provisions were made to make sure you get questions from the YouTube audience that conservatives care about?
AC: “We got more than 4,000, so we certainly have a wide variety.”
DB: “I want it to be a Republican debate, focusing on issues that are important to Republican voters.”
“We’re looking for that. We are eliminating the obvious Democratic gotchas…the stink-bomb grenades…”
“There are plenty of conservative questions.”
Q: Exactly how many questions came from Ron Paul supporters? It’s gotta be half of them, right?
AC: “Obviously, Ron Paul supporters are very online, but we’ve got good questions for all the candidates.”
DB: “Ron Paul’s this interesting phenomenon…you don’t know if there are 40 or 4 million supporters. They’re so good online…Only a couple of them (chosen YouTube questions) are directed at Ron Paul.”
Q: Do you feel the New Media vs. Old Media tension when you host this kind of debate? How do you feel about regular Americans posing the questions instead of you?
AC: “I like this format. I like new technology. I think all of this stuff is exciting. It’s interesting. None of us know where it’s going and that’s a good thing.”
Q: In the last couple of debates, the moderators have taken perhaps more licks in post-debate coverage than the candidates did. What do you think about the moderator-as-story?
AC: “There’s just a proliferation of blogs and the chattering classes and people talking. More avenues for people to make their feelings known, which is good.
“Things people would normally grumble at the TV, you now (see published and discussed), which is good and interesting and as it should be. I think that’s why you’re hearing more about it…”
“I think my job is to get out of the way as much as possible and get the questions answered and make sure candidates honor the time people took to ask questions…”
“I certainly hope I don’t become the story, but there’s so many candidates on the stage that somebody’s gonna be unhappy.”
DB: “I’ve been reading a lot…Russert I guess got a lot of criticism…I was surprised at some of the criticism Wolf got. I thought he did very well. The crowd was a little boisterous but there’s passion in politics. No one says you have to hold a debate in a library.”
“It’s always easy to blame the media.”
Q: Are Larry King and Wolf Blitzer totally jealous that you’re the new hotness at CNN?
AC: “(Laughter) Umm, I think they’re still very high on the hotness. I don’t think they have anything to worry about.”
The debate is Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CNN. I'll be in St. Petersburg bringing much more coverage.