Democratic White House hopefuls made history Monday, parrying Internet video questions from voters soured on modern politics, in a sign of the Web’s booming role in elections.
“Wassup? asked the first questioner Zach Kempf from Provo, Utah, in a greeting heralding an unconventional two-hour 2008 campaign debate hosted by video-sharing website YouTube and broadcast by CNN from South Carolina.
Front-runner Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama, former senator John Edwards and five other long-shot candidates, faced a selection from the 3,000 YouTube videos submitted, played to them on a large screen.
The debate was seen as a bid to harness the power of the Web, as citizens armed with only webcams and computers demanded a say in politics dominated by multi-million dollar warchests, wealthy consultants and corporate media.
But if the medium was unconventional, candidates rolled out answers straight from tried-and-tested political playbooks, duelling on Iraq, Darfur, gay marriage, healthcare, tax policy and education.
In one poignant video, the mother of a young soldier about to deploy to Iraq asked “how many more soldiers must die while these political games continue in our government?”
Clinton thanked the woman for her family’s service and later said “we need to set a timeline to begin bringing our troops home now.”
But Obama, seeking to exploit Clinton’s 2002 vote in favor of authorizing Bush to wage war in Iraq — before Obama he was in the Senate — noted that he himself had been against the invasion all along.
“The time for us to ask how to get out of Iraq was before we got in,” said the Illinois senator, who is struggling to cut into Clinton’s opinion lead.
The two front-runners also clashed on foreign policy. Obama was asked whether he would meet leaders of US foes Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in his first year in office.
“I would,” he said. “The reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them.”
But Clinton, painting herself as the most experienced potential president, said she did not “want to be used for propaganda purposes” so would not meet leaders of such nations in her first year, but would send out top envoys.
Another video came from a camp for Darfur refugees, and three questioners standing behind refugee children asked them to imagine themselves a parent of one of the refugees and refrain from “empty” promises to help.
Long-shot candidate Senator Joseph Biden issued a passionate call to put US troops on the ground to stop the killing of Darfur refugees by militiamen.
“I am so tired of this … those kids will be dead by the time the diplomacy is over.”
Clinton said however that while she supported a no-fly zone for Darfur, she did not believe US troops, bogged down in Iraq, should be on the ground in the region.
Another YouTube video, from “Will from Massachusetts,” asked “is African Americans ever going to get reparations from slavery?” saying he expected to see the White House hopefuls “dipping and dodging” from his question.
In another short question, two women named “Mary and Jen” asked the candidates, as president, “would you allow us to marry …. each other?”
A woman called Kim pulled off a wig in one video, saying she was 36 and hoped “to be a future breast cancer survivor” but worried about rising healthcare costs.
Clinton headed into the debate after cementing her opinion poll lead over Obama and Edwards, six months before first voting opens in both Republican and Democratic nominating contests.
Also at the debate were longshot candidates, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Chris Dodd, former senator Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, a member of the House of Representatives.
Forty-five percent of Democrats surveyed in a poll for the Washington Post and ABC News published Monday said they would support Clinton to be the party’s presidential nominee, compared to 30 percent for Illinois Senator Obama and 12 percent for former senator Edwards.
Republican presidential candidates will have their own version of Monday’s debate, on September 17 in Florida.