Cover Story
CREATING BUZZ: Presidential hopefuls listen to a YouTube question from Shawn Jackson.

Virtual front-runners

Campaign 2008 | The internet is changing the way candidates run for president-at least Democratic candidates. Republicans are scrambling to make up online ground

Issue: "The yoot vote," Aug. 4, 2007

CHARLESTON, S.C.-In an open-air quad in the gleaming-white barracks at The Citadel military college in Charleston, S.C., cadet Ivan Rodriguez is demonstrating a proper march. Five freshmen cadets stand at attention, fixing their gaze on Rodriguez, a junior from Texas in a crisp summer uniform and pristine white gloves. Rodriguez makes precise turns around the quad's red-and-white-checkered floor, tracing the same steps that Citadel cadets have learned for nearly 165 years.

As the new cadets strain to follow marching orders, a small plane flies overhead, pulling a banner bearing a different order: "Stop Her Now." The blunt message paid for by a Washington, D.C.-based political group isn't intended for any of the female cadets below, but for Sen. Hillary Clinton, one of eight Democratic presidential candidates here for a CNN-sponsored televised debate.

The unorthodox advertisement signaled that the July 23 event at the Citadel was no ordinary debate. Instead, the old school made history by hosting a new form of political discourse: For the first time in a televised debate, presidential hopefuls faced questions from ordinary Americans submitted via the internet.

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In the weeks leading up to the event, more than 3,000 people logged onto the video-sharing website YouTube.com to send homemade videos featuring their questions for Democratic candidates. CNN and YouTube selected about 40 of the video questions to air during the two-hour debate moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Republican presidential hopefuls will face YouTube questions in a debate of their own this fall. But the fact that Democrats christened the new forum is emblematic of one of the major realities of the 2008 presidential campaign so far: Democrats are dominating Republicans online.

The party's candidates are vastly outstripping the GOP in leveraging the internet for two key purposes: creating buzz and raising money. GOP strategists say old school Republicans must adjust to new school communication if they want to capture the swelling number of voters who absorb most of their information about candidates from the web. Failure online could mean failure on Election Day.

Cadet Tara Woodside isn't ready to predict success or failure yet. The rising senior from Salem, N.J., is following the campaign mostly online, but she says it's too early to pick a favorite: "Right now it's anybody's game."

Hours before Democrats commenced the YouTube debate in an auditorium across campus, Woodside told WORLD she was eager to hear what the candidates would say about the war: "That's definitely the No. 1 issue for me."

For Woodside, the issue is personal. Though she isn't pursuing a career in the military, many of her fellow cadets are planning to enter the service. Woodside knows that could mean tours of duty in Iraq, and she wants to know where candidates stand on the war. She wonders: "What's going to happen to the people I go to school with?"

For a handful of Citadel graduates, that question has already been answered: Scores have died in active military duty since Citadel cadets fired the first shots of the Civil War. At least a dozen have died in Middle Eastern combat since Sept. 11, 2001.

A capacity audience watching the Democratic debate in The Citadel's McAlister Field House rose to its feet when images of the 12 fallen men filled a large screen adjacent to the stage. It was a sober moment in a freewheeling debate that featured questions ranging from rigorous to ridiculous.

The opening word of the first video question of the evening demonstrated that this presidential debate would be different from any other before it. "Wassup?" asked Zach Kempf from Provo, Utah.

A decidedly casual and unpredictable format tested the candidates throughout the night: One moment they were responding to weighty questions about the war or Social Security. The next moment they were facing queries like the one from two men from Murfreesboro, Tenn. In exaggerated Southern accents, the pair asked the candidates about all the media attention given to Al Gore: "What we want to know is does that hurt y'alls feelings?" (The candidates chuckled, but didn't answer the question.)

Many of the videos forced candidates to address broad issues on a personal level. Mary and Jen, two women from Brooklyn, N.Y., asked: "If you were elected president of the United States, would you allow us to be married to each other?"

Congressman Dennis Kucinich answered yes. Sen. Chris Dodd and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson answered no, but followed up with steadfast support for civil unions.

Reggie Longcrier, a minister from Hickory, N.C., directly asked John Edwards why he opposes gay marriage and uses religious reasons to "deny gay Americans their full and equal rights." Edwards answered that he felt "enormous personal conflict" about the issue, but didn't directly address Longcrier's question.

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