Issues are familiar, but format is new as Democrats debate

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama tangled over the Iraq war and outreach to America's adversaries during a novel TV debate last night that stretched the boundaries of new and old media.

Opening a new chapter in the digital political age, the candidates answered prerecorded video questions that had been submitted online by thousands of ordinary voters. While the format of the event might have overshadowed its substance, Senator Obama of Illinois used it to attack Clinton over the consequences of her 2002 Senate vote to authorize the use of U.S. military force in Iraq.

"The time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in. And that is something that too many of us failed to do," Obama said, to audience applause, after Clinton called for more detailed Pentagon planning for a U.S. troop pullout.

But Obama, perhaps highlighting his greatest vulnerability - inexperience in government - appeared to slip when he said he would be willing, during his first year as president, to hold separate, unconditional, face-to-face talks with the leaders of North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela.

Clinton pounced. She said she wouldn't promise talks with leaders of those countries without knowing first what their intentions were.

"I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse," the New York senator said.

The exchange, a rare confrontation between the early front-runners in the Democratic contest, highlighted a two-hour-plus forum co-sponsored by CNN and Google Inc.'s YouTube Web site.

The event, staged on the campus of The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., also took place in a new campaign zone: a mash-up of old media and new.

Deftly moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper, the forum was fast-paced, with far more humor than any previous debates this year. There were soundtracks and music for several questions. At one point, an animated snowman asked a question about global warming.

It was also, as one of the candidates appeared to suggest, perhaps the most cynical of presidential debates in recent memory. The tone of the video clips was often irreverent and highly skeptical, with questioner after questioner demanding that the candidates "be honest."

At other debates this year, candidates have often used the public's disgust with the news media as a shield and dismissed journalists' questions that they would rather not answer.

That was more difficult, if not impossible, last night because the "gotcha" questions came from the mouths of voters, even though they had been carefully chosen by CNN's producers.

Most of the candidates said they would work for the minimum wage, if elected, instead of the $400,000 salary that goes with the office. Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware demurred; Obama ducked.

With a show of hands, most of the candidates acknowledged, after a question about energy conservation, that they had flown to the event via private jet. Ex-Sen. Mike Gravel, who once again savaged his rivals as tools of monied interests, said he took the train.

Obama observed at one point that "every single question" had reflected "cynicism" about the capacity of politicians to change the country.

The questioners were largely from the YouTube generation, those 18 to 28, who spend hours in front of their computers every day - and are less likely to vote than older Americans.

Their questions reflected mainly domestic concerns, including health care, education, race, gay marriage and immigration. The candidates were also challenged on war-related issues by, among others, the father of a soldier who died in Iraq, posing in front of the folded flag that covered his coffin; the mother of a soldier who has been deployed twice; and a U.S. serviceman on duty in Japan.

Barry Mitchell of Philadelphia wondered whether the Democrats were "watching the same blankin' war" that he was and asked how the U.S. could afford to pull out of Iraq right now.

Biden, catching the spirit of the event, said an immediate pullout was impossible and advised his rivals to "tell the truth for a change." He said it was logistically impossible to get all U.S. forces out of Iraq as early as next spring, as most Democrats want.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina took advantage of another facet of the program, in which each campaign showed its own YouTube video, to try to repair the damage to his image caused by his now-famous $400 haircut. While the title song from the Broadway musical Hair blared, the screen flashed graphic photos of problems facing the country, including the violence in Iraq and devastation from Hurricane Katrina, along with the message: "What really matters? You choose."

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, confronted by a Michigan man with a high-powered rifle that he called his "baby," was asked whether it would be safe with a Democratic president. He replied that no one who is mentally ill or has a criminal background should be able to get a weapon and the answer is "instant background checks."

Among the first questioners was Saheed Badmus, 18, of Brentwood, in Prince George's County, who said he submitted his question, about partisanship, out of frustration.

"There's nothing getting done in Washington right now because of the fighting, the sleepovers, the push to impeach Bush," he said. So he asked: If the candidates had to pick a current Republican lawmaker as a running mate, who would that be?

Biden said Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel would be his choice, and he mentioned his own successes at marshaling bipartisan support for bills.

Edwards too identified Hagel, but said he did not believe compromise would bring about "big change."

Badmus, who will start his freshman year at the University of Maryland this fall, said he was satisfied with Biden's response but thought Edwards "just blew it off."

Critics had said the debate format smacked of a marketing gimmick, by noting that past debates have featured ordinary voters posing questions to presidential candidates, usually in town hall-style settings. But thanks to careful production by CNN, last night's forum was notably different.

Until last night, the campaign's most talked about YouTube offering - a suggestive music video featuring "Obama girl," a swimsuit model who claims to have a "crush" on the candidate - had no significant impact on the contest.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer, in the hype leading up to the program, promised "a debate like you've never seen before."

The sponsors delivered, and the '08 campaign has had its first YouTube moments of a very different sort. A debate featuring the Republican contenders is scheduled for Sept. 17 in Florida.

Staff writer Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.

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