WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential candidates were pelted Monday night with scores of questions from the people who will decide which of them becomes the Democratic nominee: American voters posted unapologetically blunt queries about race, gender, Iraq and gay marriage.
The debate -- a first-of-its-kind forum that had voters framing questions through the Internet video site, YouTube -- featured often anguished questions and equally passionate responses from the candidates, who for the first time spent two hours together contending with the frustrations and worries of ordinary voters.
Shedding the formality and deference often shown to the prominent office-holders on the stage at the Citadel military college in Charleston, SC, men and women from Boston to Darfur were direct in their questions sent in the form of grainy, homemade videos: how can the United States pull out of Iraq with the situation there so unstable? Should women be subject to the draft? Do African-Americans deserve reparations for the enslavement of their forefathers?
That question -- asked by "Will from Boston" -- drew a "yes" from just one of the eight candidates, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich. Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Illinois Senator Barack Obama both said they opposed reparations, but would fight to make life better for African-Americans by reducing poverty and investing in education.
Sometimes, the questions were brutally personal. Obama -- the mixed-race son of a Kansan mother and Kenyan father -- was asked if considered himself an "authentic'' black man.
The Illinois senator smiled. "When [I recall] catching a cab in Manhattan in the past, I think I'm given my credentials'' as an African-American, Obama said.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton faced a similar question from a US soldier overseas, who wondered if she could be taken seriously as a female leader doing diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world.
Clinton calmly reviewed her long career in public service, concluding that "there isn't much doubt in anyone's mind that I can be taken seriously,'' and that it would be "quite appropriate'' for her to represent the United States before Muslim and Arab leaders.
"Other countries have had women presidents and women prime ministers. I have noticed that their compatriots on the world stage have certainly taken them seriously,'' she said.
Two women from Brooklyn asked the candidates if they could marry each other under any of the contenders' administrations: only Kucinich gave his blessing, while Edwards and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd said they supported civil unions. "I would level with you -- I would do what is achievable,'' said New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, adding that he
would endorse domestic partnership protection laws and an end to the "don't ask, don't tell'' policy toward gays in the military.
Several candidates -- Clinton, Edwards and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel -- told the military academy audience that women should have to register with Selective Service along with men, although all three said they did not support a draft. Many of the candidates reiterated their pledge to get the United States out of Iraq, with Kucinich blasting his colleagues for giving Americans "a Democratic version'' of the war instead of defunding it.
Delaware Senator Joe Biden, after viewing a video from a gun owner who called his gun his "baby,'' appeared horrified before he reiterated his commitment to strong gun laws. "If that's his baby, he needs help,'' Biden said. "I don't know if he's mentally qualified to own that gun.''
Dodd, asked if the Katrina response would have been better if the affected region had not been heavily populated by poor and African-American people, said he believed the federal government response would have been speedier if the hurricane had hit a predominantly white population area.
Global warming was also on voters's minds, with one questioner doing a voice-over for a snowman, who asked if his "son'' - a small snowman -- would survive climate change.
The candidates expressed their commitment to reducing global warming, but nearly all sheepishly raised their hands when asked directly if they took private jets to attend the debate. Kucinich said he did not; Gravel said, "I took the train.''
The debate marked the first time candidates answered questions posed by Internet users on YouTube, an online video library that features amateur and professionally-produced video clips. More than 3,000 people around the world submitted questions for selection by debate sponsors YouTube and CNN.
Because many of the submitted questions -- ranging from health care to predatory lending by banks -- were posted online before the debate, the eight Democratic presidential campaigns were able to view many of the questions ahead of the debate and prepare answers. Rejected questions included those posed by people in costume, those who used their children to ask adult questions, and those meant to "stuff the ballot box'' by pushing a question meant to help or hurt a particular candidate, moderator Anderson Cooper said.
Political analysts said the unusual forum allowed many Americans access to the political process, since questioners did not need to travel to the debate site to ask questions. Further, the Internet-age nature of the debate was appealing to young voters, a growing political force which has been active in online political activity but less likely than older voters to watch formal debates.
The fact that the political conversation is shifting off the airwaves and online is a hugely empowering dynamic that ultimately helps young people,'' said Adrian Talbott, a co-founder of Generation Engage. The group, which seeks to bring more young, non-college youth into the political process, hosted debate-watching parties last night in New York, Miami and San Jose.
Jim Cullinan, a Yahoo! spokesman, said the Internet search engine would sponsor an entirely online debate in the fall, with both questioners and candidates participating from different locations.
The candidates themselves submitted their own campaign videos, and kept to the Internet-edgy mood of the debate. Dodd featured himself discussing how he got all his white hair -- hard work, he said it was. Clinton showed a series of hand-scrawled posters criticizing Bush's domestic and foreign policies, and concluded with a poster saying,
"Sometimes, the best man for the job is a woman.''
Obama's video sounded like a rock video, and Edwards took on his critics who have rebuked him for billing a $400 haircut to his campaign.
As the song "Hair'' played as background, Edwards's video showed painful clips of poor Americans, and devastation in New Orleans after the hurricane. "What really matters?'' the video asked in closing.
But while many of the candidates professed a desire to help the working poor, not all said they would work at their current jobs for the minimum wage, which rises Tuesday to $5.85 an hour.
"I have two young daughters. I don't think I can live on the minimum wage,'' Dodd said. Biden agreed, but said he could do it if he got a second job.
Obama noted that "we can afford to work for minimum age, because most of the folks here on this stage have a lot of money,'' teasingly noting to Dodd, "you're doing all right, Chris.'' Biden shot back jokingly: "I don't have Obama money.'