Cover Story

Virtual front-runners

"Virtual front-runners" Continued...

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

At that point, moderator Anderson Cooper unexpectedly revealed that Longcrier was in the audience. The minister stood and said Edwards had not answered his question. Cooper asked Edwards: "Why is it OK to quote religious beliefs when talking about why you don't support something?" An uncomfortable-looking Edwards replied: "It's not." He added that though he doesn't believe in gay marriage, as president he wouldn't use his faith "as a basis for denying anybody their rights."

Some of the most compelling videos of the evening showed questioners in difficult circumstances. Two brothers from Davenport, Iowa, sat at a kitchen table spoon-feeding their mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. They asked what candidates would do to help fight the illness.

A woman from Long Island, N.Y., removed a wig to reveal her hairless head. "I'm 36 years old and hope to be a future breast cancer survivor," she said. She asked the candidates what they would do to improve the affordability of health insurance for people like her. (All the candidates said they supported universal health-care coverage, but they squabbled over the details of how to make it affordable.)

One of the most pointed questions of the night dealt with the war in Iraq. Barry Mitchell from Philadelphia asked the candidates: "How do we pull out now?" He pointed out the dangers of destabilizing the Middle East and added: "And isn't it our responsibility to get these people on their feet? I mean, do you leave a newborn baby to take care of himself?"

Mitchell's question prompted an extended discussion of the war and foreign policy that led to a clash between front-runners Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Clinton pounced on Obama for saying he would be willing to meet with some of the world's most notorious leaders as president.

"Certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria, until we know better what the way forward would be," she said. (After the debate, Obama's campaign pointed out that earlier this year Clinton criticized President Bush, saying: "I think it is a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people.")

Despite the star power on The Citadel debate stage, by the end of the two-hour event pundits were declaring an unexpected winner: YouTube. In the bustling post-debate "spin room," Andrew Rasiej told WORLD that the debate's video format revealed how the internet could transform a presidential election by making candidates more directly accountable to voters.

Rasiej is the founder of techPresident.com, a research website devoted to reporting on how candidates are using the internet. He said the web is "setting the tone and pace" for the presidential campaign, and that the YouTube debate only "dipped a pinkie toe" into the potential for harnessing the web's power to engage voters.

David All hopes to harness that power for Republicans. All, a GOP web strategist based in Washington, D.C., admits that Republicans lag significantly behind Democrats in using the internet effectively. Republicans have long maintained a well-defined communications structure, he says, but they haven't adapted that structure to the internet age.

One stark sign of the GOP's online weakness is campaign fundraising: Democratic candidates so far have pulled in about $100 million more than Republicans ahead of the 2008 elections. The three leading Democratic presidential candidates raised more than $28 million online through June 30. (Obama raised about $17 million of that online total.)

The top three Republican presidential candidates were much less successful, raising only about $14 million via the internet through June 30. That's barely half of the Democratic total.

Part of Democrats' online success, according to All, is due to a focus on drawing in hundreds of thousands of donors who contribute relatively small amounts at a time. (Online fundraising is also much cheaper than traditional methods like direct mailing.) Obama's campaign says it has a donor list of about 258,000 people, and that about half of those donors haven't yet reached the federal contribution limit of $2,300 per candidate.

Democrats have also carefully cultivated a significant presence on social networking sites that draw in thousands of supporters, including donors. For example, on MySpace.com Obama has more than 151,000 registered "friends," while Clinton boasts a total of 123,00.

Rudy Giuliani, the Republican front-runner, has only 6,764. Giuliani's low total is likely due to the fact that his page on MySpace.com is private and accessible only to those he adds to a list.

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