GOP, YouTube meet at debate

Questions for a September debate at the Mahaffey will come from the Web.

Published July 21, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The GOP presidential primary debate coming to the city this September promises to blend the buffoonaries of Internet geeks with the starched collars of national politics.

A question about global warming may come from a snowman, while a shirtless guy named Don might ask about legalizing marijuana.

Organizers formally announced the two-hour CNN debate Friday, saying that questions will come from visitors to the video-sharing Web site YouTube. The Florida debate will mimic an event for Democrats in South Carolina Monday.

The most popular question submitted online so far: Is Arnold Schwarzenegger a cyborg?

"We're not going to ask the candidates that one," said CNN political director Sam Feist, who says the cable network has selected about 100 potential questions for the Democratic event. "Some of them are going to be fun, some are silly. Most are personal."

Like the story of Kristy Ivey.

Her face fills computer the screen; a tense, weary mask relieved only slightly by a splash of lipstick and a brightly colored scarf around her neck.

Ivey's question is simple: "I would like to ask the candidates what they have in plan for our health care system," she says, moving back the scarf to reveal a massive scar stretching from the base of her neck to mid chest.

"... So someone at my age doesn't have to have a heart attack and triple bypass and this scar just because I could not get any doctor to order the tests that I needed."

More than 1,700 videotaped queries already have been uploaded to YouTube for the Democratic debate. The site will start accepting questions for the GOP debate Monday night.

"I watch the submissions every day. ... I've watched hundreds of them a day," said Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor who will moderate the debates. "Clearly, for some, they are questions that are life or death for them. There is something very compelling about that."

Attending a press conference at the waterfront Mahaffey Theater, the site of the Sept. 17 debate, Gov. Charlie Crist seemed shocked to hear YouTube's reach. More than 100-million videos are viewed on the site each day. More than 12 years' worth of video was seen last month alone.

Besides being shown live on CNN, the debate will have an intense online component through YouTube, organizers said.

A spin through the myriad questions already uploaded speaks volumes. One post features a montage of black and white photos of young people, interspersed with text describing them as uncaring, uninterested and unfeeling, asking finally how would the candidates connect with this generation.

Another post features a woman standing in a refugee camp in Chad, asking about the humanitarian crisis following the genocide in Darfur. There's even an unemployed truck driver doing a George Bush impersonation, asking why Hillary Clinton won't apologize for voting to give the president authority to wage war in Iraq.

"When I first talked to the YouTube guys, what I really sparked to was their commitment to doing something that was really about the issues," said CNN U.S. president Jon Klein, who was in Los Angeles meeting with TV critics.

"They could care less who's ahead in the fundraising," Klein said. "They and the people in their (online) community just want to know what works, what doesn't and what these candidates are going to do about real problems. I think TV viewers are going to find that very refreshing."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

Fast Facts:

Want to see the debate in person?

Organizers said Friday some tickets will be made available to the public, but were unsure how they would be distributed. In any scenario, landing a ticket may prove difficult. When the 2,030-seat Mahaffey Theater hosted the 1996 vice presidential debate, there were only 20 tickets available for a public lottery.

Florida GOP presidential debate

When: Monday, Sept. 17, 7-9 p.m.

Where: Mahaffey Theater, downtown St. Petersburg.

ON TV: Live on CNN, moderated by Anderson Cooper.

To submit a question

Starting Monday night, people can submit questions at www.youtube.com/debates. Organizers say questions should be creative and short -- under 30 seconds.