It's not everyday you witness a shotgun-wielding young man sidle up to a politician running for president and ask him at a formal debate, point blank, how he feels about gun control laws. Oh, and follow up by loading the rifle for emphasis and quipping, "Don't worry, you can answer however you like."
And I can't quite picture a typical moderator asking a question as direct as, what is your favorite make, model, and caliber of weapon, or do you believe every word of the Bible?
Yet a virtual version of those encounters is precisely what unfolded at the second iteration of a presidential debate jointly sponsored by CNN and YouTube. There may not have been an appearances from any talking snowman concerned about his snowchild's fate in global warming this time around, but the quirky new format seemed to work as well as the Democratic flavor this summer.
And to think--just a few months ago, it was looking unclear how many Republican candidates would show up, prompting online pleas from young sympathizers to mount a grassroots "Save the Debate" campaign. Sure enough,all eight Republican candidates parked behind podiums on a stage in St. Petersburg, Fla., as a characteristic star-spangled, logo-embossed red-white-and-blue mosaic glowed behind them.
About 5,000 submissions poured in before this round, CNN host Anderson Cooper announced before the games began. That's about 2,000 more than for the Democratic presidential debates, although time could be a factor: The cable network and the Google subsidiary gave only about a little more than a month's notice of their plans before the Democratic debate in July.
All told, the Republican candidates had to grapple with 33 video questions, although very few were answered by a majority of the candidates. Not once did Cooper press for a raise of hands or a quick yes-or-no response, although he did occasionally interject with his own queries.
From the very start, the two-hour event had fireworks, first ignited by a question from a "tough-talking" Brooklynite. He asked Rudy Giuliani whether he planned to "continue to aid and abet the flight of illegal aliens" into the United States if elected president, prompting a fiery back-and-forth with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that left Cooper struggling to move the conversation along.
Perhaps the second-most-heated exchange occurred between Rep. Ron Paul and Sen. John McCain, who assailed the Texas congressman's belief that bringing American troops home from Iraq is akin to the "isolationism" that "allowed Hitler to come to power" and "caused World War II."
It would be inaccurate to say the user-generated format was directly responsible for all of the excitement--after all, the Iraq war and immigration have been known to ruffle a few feathers, regardless of who's doing the asking. The tense McCain-Paul tiff, for its part, was actually a diversion from McCain's response to an unrelated question from an animated Uncle Sam, who wondered which contenders support eliminating the federal income tax.
Still, the two-hour event was peppered with moments when user-generated videos added an extra something to the endless stream of early-stage soapboxing on the same major policy issues.
A California guy who appeared to be in his 20s chowed down on an ear of corn and questioned the need for continued federal farm subsidies. (None of the candidates who responded was willing to give them up). A young Texas man gestured to a confederate flag displayed prominently behind him and asked the candidates what they thought of the controversial symbol. (No one was willing to endorse it).
Some of the videos were nothing more than a man or woman seemingly speaking into a basic Webcam from his or her office or apartment, but the delivery of the questions occasionally stood in for less-than-exciting scenery.
A young African-American man from California asked, "Why don't we vote for you?"
In a brief video, one young Indiana man asked of the death penalty: "What would Jesus do?"
The question prompted considerable bobbing and weaving from the two candidates who elected to answer--Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado--even after Cooper intervened with, "The question was, what would Jesus do? Would Jesus support the death penalty?"
One of the more poignant moments of the night arrived when YouTube video-maker Keith Kerr of California, a retired Army brigadier general, asked the candidates to explain why the candidates seem to believe "American men and women in uniform are not professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians."
This question was unique because Kerr, clad in a red button-down shirt, was actually present in the studio audience as well. Duncan Hunter, Huckabee, Romney and McCain each thanked him for his service before defending the policy. Cooper then gave Kerr the chance to respond to their positions. "With all due respect, I did not get an answer from the candidates," he said, his voice quivering and eyes appearing to water.
(Update at 10:42 a.m. PST Thursday: Kerr, it seems, is a member of Hillary Clinton's steering committee on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues, according to a press release at her Web site, which has drawn accusations that the retired officer was a "plant." Clinton's campaign denied any connection in an interview Thursday with the Wall Street Journal.)
As has come to be somewhat of a given, the debate was light on science and technology issues, although one Denver man put together a montage of sorts, imploring the candidates to divulge their "vision for human space exploration"--and whether they'd commit to sending an American to the surface of Mars by 2020.
Once again, Huckabee and Tancredo were the only two candidates who answered the question, and they weren't particularly committal.
If we do send a human to Mars, Huckabee joked, "maybe Hillary can be on the first rocket." The red-state-sympathizing crowd went wild.
And when one video submitter asked whether the candidates planned to rely on their vice presidents as extensively as President Bush has relied on Dick Cheney, McCain suggested he might seek his No. 2's "expertise on telecommunications, on information technology, which is the future of this nation's economy." (McCain, for the record, currently sits on the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, which deals with both of those issues.)
Given Romney's sordid comments about the animated snowman at the Democratic debates (in short: not his cup of tea), I halfway expected the final question to come from to come from that infamous character. But instead, CNN and YouTube opted to end on another unorthodox note.
"Giuliani," a seemingly breathless Chris Krul of Bonita Springs, Fla., barked into his Webcam, "could you explain why, being a lifelong Yankees fan, that you rooted for the Red Sox in the post-season?"