NEW YORK – Young, Internet-savvy voters challenged Democratic presidential hopefuls on Iraq, the military draft and the candidates' own place in a broken political system, playing starring roles in a provocative, video-driven debate Monday night.
"Wassup?" came the first question, from a voter named Zach, after another, named Chris, opened the CNN-YouTube debate with a barb aimed at the entire eight-candidate field: "Can you as politicians ... actually answer questions rather than beat around the bush?"
The answer was a qualified yes. The candidates faced a slew of blunt questions — from earnest to the ridiculous — and, in many cases, responded in kind.
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To Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois: Are you black enough? "You know, when I'm catching a cab in Manhattan ... in the past, I think I've given my credentials," he replied.
To Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York: Are you feminine enough? "I couldn't run as anything other than a woman," she said.
Her answer drew a challenge from former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who said he was the best advocate for women among the contenders. "I have the strongest, boldest ideas," he said.
Posing a question that few, if any, of the candidates had fielded before, one voter asked whether young women should register with the Selective Service, as do young men in case the draft is reinstated. Clinton, Obama and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said yes.
The debate featured questions submitted to the online video community YouTube and screened by the all-news cable TV network. A talking snowman, two rednecks and a woman speaking from her bathroom were among the odd, Internet-age twists to the oldest forum in politics — a debate.
A Clio, Mich., man named Jered asked about gun control while brandishing an automatic weapon.
"He needs help," Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware snapped.
When was the last time a presidential candidate was forced to promise to work at minimum wage? That is effectively what happened when a voter asked whether the candidates would serve four years at $5.85 an hour rather than the president's annual $400,000 salary.
"Sure," replied Clinton.
The gathering was held at the military college of The Citadel in South Carolina, site of one of the earliest primaries — Jan. 29. Fittingly, the Democrats skirmished over the Iraq war and other foreign policy issues.
Asked if Democrats are playing politics with the war, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said yes. "The Democrats have failed the American people," he said.
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel said U.S. soldiers are dying in vain. No other candidate would go that far.
Obama took the opportunity to take a slap at his rivals who voted to give Bush authority to invade Iraq, including Clinton and Edwards. "The time to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in," he said, without naming Clinton or Edwards.
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico said he's the only candidate pledging to remove troops within six months. Biden said Richardson's goal was unrealistic.
Sensing her position was under attack, Clinton bristled as she argued that U.S. troops must be removed from Iraq "safely and orderly and carefully."
Obama said he would be willing to meet individually with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea during the first year of his presidency. "The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration, is ridiculous," Obama said to applause.
Clinton immediately disagreed and said she would send envoys first to find out their intentions. "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes," she said. Her campaign quickly posted the video on her Web site, trying to draw a distinction with her chief rival and show she has a different understanding of foreign policy.
On another foreign policy topic, Biden said he would send 2,500 U.S. troops to Darfur to try to end the civil war there. It took three tries to get Clinton to answer the same questions. She finally said U.S. ground troops don't belong in the fight because they are overextended in Iraq.
She also refused to call herself a liberal. "I prefer the word progressive, which has a real American meaning ...," she said.
Clinton, Obama and Edwards lead in most polls of the Democratic field.
The opening question challenged Democrats to do better than the failed leadership in Congress and the White House. "How are you going to be any different?" the voter asked.
Obama, a freshmen lawmaker trying to appeal to the public's thirst for change, replied, "One of the things I bring is a perspective ... that says Washington has to change."
Clinton claimed she has a 35-year-record as an agent of change. "The issue is which of us is to lead on Day One."
The Democratic gathering marked a turning point in political communications. CNN, a landmark all-news cable network when founded 27 years ago, is now part of a media establishment coming to terms with upstarts like the 2 1/2-year-old online video community.
The debate aside, YouTube has already left its mark on politics. Republican George Allen lost his Senate seat and a likely spot in the 2008 presidential race after a YouTube video caught him referring to a man of South Asian decent as "macaca" — an ethnic slur in some countries.
In the presidential campaign, buzz-worthy video clips have included Bill and Hillary Clinton's spoof of "The Sopranos" finale, Edwards' combing his hair to the tune "I Feel Pretty," and a buxom model professing her crush on Obama.
In the spirit of the era, each candidate was asked to produce his or her own video.
Edwards' video poked fun at the attention paid to his pricey haircuts at the expense of more serious issues. Set to the theme from the 1968 musical "Hair," the video opens with several close-up of hairdos, giving way to less frivolous images including several from Iraq. It ends with a white-on-black slide: "What really matters? You Choose"
Clinton's video-ad ended with the kicker, "Sometimes the best man for a job is a woman."
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