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Giuliani, Romney not coming

Without the two heavy hitters, is the St. Petersburg debate doomed?

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times staff writer
Published July 28, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - The CNN/YouTube Republican presidential debate planned here was touted as historic.

Now, it's in danger of becoming history.

Leading GOP candidates Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney said Friday they would not attend the September event at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater because of scheduling conflicts.

The idea of a presidential campaigns wrangling over debate details is nothing new. But the potential absence of Giuliani and Romney could diminish, if not doom, the September event.

Gov. Charlie Crist said Friday he would contact the candidates if need be and urge them to attend.

It may be reaching that point.

So far Sen. John McCain, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Texas Rep. Ron Paul have agreed to participate. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also has reportedly agreed to attend.

The debate features questions asked by users of the video-sharing Web site YouTube.

"We have six events on that date that are already scheduled," Giuliani said in an interview Friday with Miami radio host Jim DeFede. "I enjoyed the format and I would like to participate in a format like that ... but I don't think we can."

Crist, who was in St. Petersburg on Friday, remained hopeful some agreement could be hashed out.

As a former candidate, he said he understands how schedules fill quickly. But he also believes Florida, and a nationwide CNN audience, would compel candidates to make time.

"I think the importance of Florida speaks for itself," Crist said. "We're the fourth-largest state. ... We're the first megastate to have a primary. The importance that goes along with that is obvious."

How is date picked?

Officials with the Republican Party of Florida, which is co-hosting the debate, would not discuss whether they will consider rescheduling the date to better accommodate the candidates' calendars. Or how they might reach out to Giuliani and Romney.

The state GOP also is planning a primary debate in Orlando in October, to be broadcast on Fox.

Giuliani said CNN arbitrarily picked a date without consulting the candidates. The Sept. 17 debate falls during a critical fundraising period. A CNN executive said late Friday the organization is working to resolve scheduling issues.

"There was a little annoyance on the part of my campaign. (CNN and YouTube) just select a date and don't think we have anything else to do," Giuliani said.

While Giuliani said in the radio interview that he enjoyed the debate format, Romney clearly was suspicious.

The debate would mirror a Democratic event held in South Carolina on Monday, which among other things, featured a question about global warming from a snowman.

"I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman," Romney told the New Hampshire Union Leader on Wednesday.

It's not the snowman

A campaign official said it was scheduling, not a snowman, that stopped Romney from attending. But critics say it reinforces the perception that when it comes to the Internet, Republicans just don't get it. A group of GOP online strategists has started an Internet petition at urging Republicans to attend.

"There's a serious miscalculation," said Patrick Ruffini, webmaster for Bush-Cheney in 2004 and former e-campaign director for the Republican National Committee. "You hear a lot about scheduling conflicts. You hear a lot about seven debates in 11 days. What get's missed in that, is that this is not the one you want to skip.

"They're missing the huge symbolic importance of this debate," Ruffini said. "Not only is it in Florida, but it is the first truly Internet, user-driven event."

Ruffini, who started the petition with founder David All, said saying no to answering questions from real people comes off as pompous.

Other campaigns quickly picked up on the rhetoric.

"We'll answer questions from any American who wants to ask one and that includes one dressed up like a snowman," an official with Tommy Thompson's campaign said in a release declaring that he is coming to Florida.

For good or bad, the snowman - with its citrus eyes and carrot lips - has become the symbol of the YouTube debate and the controversy surrounding it.

Brothers Greg and Nathan Hamel of Minneapolis, who created the video question, say it's becoming a scapegoat for candidates.

"They fear what snowmen stand for - the lack of boundaries, the lack of rules," said Nathan, 26. "The YouTube format really freaks them out. I think the GOP would rather have an 1800s format where all the questions come from yes-men in wigs."

The Hamel brothers say they plan to submit another question for the GOP contenders in September. The snowman, who they call Billiam, will be back.

How many candidates might be in St. Petersburg to hear it is another question.

Adam Smith contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at or (727) 892-2273.

[Last modified July 28, 2007, 02:14:29]

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