After spending the day facing accusations it stacked the deck against the Republican presidential contenders by having Democratic backers ask video questions during its debate, CNN on Thursday responded that it doesn't know what the fuss is all about.
The cable news network, in collaboration with video Web site YouTube, hosted the Wednesday night debate that had more than 30 voters pose questions to the Republican candidates. It later turned out that several of those questioners are actively supporting Democratic candidates.
"The whole point of these ground-breaking CNN/YouTube debates is to focus on substantive questions of concern to real people and to throw open the process to a wider range of Americans all around the country. CNN cared about what you asked, not who you were. This was the case for both the Democratic and the Republican CNN/YouTube debates," CNN said in a statement issued late in the day.
"The issues raised during last night's debate were legitimate and relevant no matter who was asking the questions. The vested interests who are challenging the credibility of the questioners are trying to distract voters from the substantive issues they care most about. Americans are tired of that discredited low-road approach, and throughout this election campaign CNN will stay focused on what the candidates are saying about the pressing issues facing this country at a critical time in our history.
"Judging by the fact that last night's event was the most-watched primary debate ever, it seems that the audience responded to our focus on plain-spoken questions about important issues," the statement continued.
But Republican candidate Mike Huckabee said news of the involvement of Democratic supporters tainted the debate.
"I think it compromises the integrity of what it was supposed to be and that is a very objective people's kind of debate," he said. Huckabee added that he's happy to answer anyone's questions, but it's a bit untoward if the advertised purpose of the debate was to give Republican voters a chance to question with their candidates.
"If the stated purpose is to give the people a chance to ask Republicans what Republican voters are interested in (in) the primary, I'm not sure that Democrat activists for other campaigns for Democrats are going to know best what Republicans are thinking for their nominee. And that's what does in fact somewhat compromise or even corrupt the process," he said.
Nearly as soon as Wednesday night's debate ended, the Internet started buzzing about one of the questioners — a retired Army colonel who revealed himself as gay.
Keith Kerr of Santa Rosa, Calif., challenged the eight candidates via video message and live in the audience at the St. Petersburg debate, on the right of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military.
The broadcast, however, failed to mention that Kerr, who served as a brigadier general in the reserves, is a member of a gay and lesbian steering committee for Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. He also was an active supporter of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Clinton spokesman Phil Singer has denied that the campaign had any knowledge ahead of time that Kerr was going to participate in the debate, and Kerr said he did not inform the campaign of his plans.
It turns out Kerr wasn't the only Democratic supporter asking questions. Ted Faturos, 20, a student at University of California, San Diego, asked a question about corn subsidies. It turns out the urban studies and planning major also worked as an intern for Democratic Rep. Jane Harman. John Hess, Harman's chief of staff, issued a statement Thursday saying Faturos is no longer affiliated with the office.
"Ted Faturos was a high school intern in our district office for the summer of 2004 only and has had no connection to the office or contact with the congresswoman since,” Hess said.
Elsewhere, one woman who identified herself as Journey from Texas, and who has a Web page in which she goes by the name Paperserenade asked the candidates about whether they would prosecute women and doctors if abortion were made illegal and the practice continued. After the debate, she posted a Web video wearing a John Edwards '08 T-shirt. In the posting, she said she was disappointed by the responses she got, particularly from Fred Thompson, though it's the answer she expected.
Another questioner, Leeann Anderson, asked about the danger of lead toys from China. Anderson, an activist on the issue, is reportedly an assistant to Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America. The union endorsed Edwards earlier this month, and Anderson's question is posted on the steelworkers' YouTube page next to a picture of Edwards.
David McMillan, a screenwriter from Los Angeles who asked the candidates why they thought the vast majority of African Americans don't vote Republican, has pictures of himself on his Web site attending a fundraiser for Barack Obama as well as several parodies bashing current and former Bush administration officials Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales.
But McMillan told FOX News he attended the Obama fundraiser in Los Angeles in mid-August as well as an Edwards event the same night, "not as a supporter, but as 'citizen journalist.'" He added that for professional purposes, he would not announce his political affiliations or which candidate he may vote for next November.
As for Kerr, he has been an activist against the military's don't-ask-don't-tell policy for years. He appeared on CNN twice in 2003 discussing his opposition to the policy that says service men and women will be dismissed from service for revealing their gay orientation. But as if reading from that policy Wednesday, Kerr told FOX News that CNN "never asked" him if he is a Clinton supporter so he "never told."
Kerr submitted the question for Republican candidates at the video debate "a couple months ago," and said last Saturday CNN called him and said they'd like him to come to the debate. He said the cable news network paid for his flight, his hotel and his transportation to and from the event.
According to the Clinton campaign, members of Clinton's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Steering Committee have endorsed Hillary Clinton for president "in their individual capacity" and work with the campaign on several areas including political outreach, communications, policy advice and counsel and fundraising.
The retired officer said his activities with the Clinton campaign are minimal. He receives e-mails from the campaign and has been invited to a fundraiser in San Francisco. He said he offered to pay "some token amount like 100 bucks" to attend the fundraiser, but as of yet has given no contribution.
"I have not done any work. Several friends asked me if I would allow my name to be listed and I agreed. She's been such a strong advocate for gay rights," he told CNN on Thursday.
He added that he had been a Log Cabin Republican for a long time and recently changed from Republican to independent in California. He said he had supported the GOP but "these guys are just partisanly homophobic."
Not all the questioners at the debate were Democratic supporters. Jay Fox, who asked a question about the candidates' positions on gun control, confirmed to FOXNews.com that he is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. He said that he had seen speculation online that he may have been a phony, but confirmed, "I actually am a Republican."
Fox, a senior film production major at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., said he is undecided but likes both Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo. He also said despite the safety lecture from Duncan Hunter after he tossed his gun in his video, he thought Hunter answered his question adequately.
Following the debate, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper said in a broadcast statement that Kerr's political ties to Clinton were unknown to the network.
"We don't know if he is still on it," said Cooper. "We are trying to find out that information. Certainly, had we had that information we would have acknowledged that in using his question, if we had used it all."
CNN said that before deciding to use Kerr's question and fly him out to the debate, it had verified his military background and that he had not contributed any money to any presidential candidate.
Afterward, Senior Vice President and Executive Producer of the debate, David Bohrman, issued a statement. "We regret this incident. CNN would not have used the general's question had we known that he was connected to any presidential candidate."
During the debate, Kerr said he wanted to know why the GOP candidates think that "American men and women in uniform are not professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians."
Candidates Hunter, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and John McCain all answered the question. Hunter said it would be "bad for unit cohesion" for openly homosexual people to serve in the ranks. Huckabee said the the Uniform Code of Military Justice states that such "conduct could put at risk the morale." Romney said that in the midst of a war is not the time to change policy, and he would listen to recommendations from military leaders. McCain said he respects the general's service to the nation but believes the leaders in the field when they say the present policy is working.
FOX News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.