Here in the wilds of (still) first-in-the-nation primary state New Hampshire, I can count on one hand the number of times I've turned on a TV in the last few years. In fact, my college has made it its business to take TV off TVs altogether and beam it to our laptops instead, helping turn my generation of couch potatoes into one of computer potatoes or YouTubers. Perhaps predictably, then, when I watched last night's CNN/YouTube debate with the Republican field of presidential candidates, I was watching to see how the producers were going to refine the novel format that debuted in the summer with the Democratic hopefuls.
But whatever fun YouTube had injected into the debate four months ago seemed to fizzle last night. Rewind to July, when the Democratic candidates duked it out in South Carolina in front of YouTubers and the nation. Within a couple of days, the Republican pack was hemming and hawing about signing on for a similar showdown.
While we waited for the GOP camps to calm down about the prospect of perhaps having to answer questions from gasp symbolically melting snowmen, 4,927 video questions were submitted, 2,000 more than were submitted for YouTube debate number one. Yet while the volume of questions grew exponentially, the range in the debate shrank to about four big topics (immigration, Iraq, guns, America's wallet). We also saw a lot more yes-or-no, black-or-white questions; a lot less of Anderson Cooper's pointed moderating and a lot of grave white guys doing the asking (of 34 videos shown, 28 were submitted by men, and all but two were white).
As for the candidates' own YouTube submissions, none really embraced the YouTube concept in style or format maybe not a surprise, but disappointing nonetheless. Not even Internet star Ron Paul, the representative from Texas, rose to the challenge. Each of the Republican campaigns handed in a canned made-for-TV spot, but the occasion invited something more innovative.
Save for a couple of yuk-yuks from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and the unintentional laughs generated by California Representative Duncan Hunter's faux pas of confusing Cooper's first and last names, the night was pretty somber.
Then again, maybe a comparison between the Democratic debate and this one isn't fair. The cast of characters is grossly different (and we don't see any real wild cards analogous to the likes of Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich or Alaska Senator Mike Gravel in the Republican crowd). Maybe it's just that by Nov. 28, presidential contenders don't have any more time to fool around.
From the first question, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made that much clear. His knock-down, drag-out opening salvo to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney would be the snarkiest fight of the night. The blows didn't get much lower than Giuliani's "sanctuary mansion" call, but still, Romney remained on the defensive for much of the night, strenuously seeking to prove his resoluteness. Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson jumped all over Romney's abortion-stance switch in his YouTube mini-mercial, the first to attack another GOP contender. Ah, how potent is the accusation of flip-floppery.
In New Hampshire, the word on the street about Mike Huckabee seems to be "Mike who?" He runs a distant fourth behind a distant third in the Granite State, but watching last night's showdown, it was readily apparent why Iowans are hopping aboard the Huckabee train in droves: He was the only candidate to communicate both compassion and conservative creds convincingly. When Romney tried to take him to task for offering college tuition breaks to undocumented kids who do well in school, Huckabee somehow managed to escape while looking tough on immigration and making Romney look like a big meanie who wants to stick it to innocent children in order to save taxpayers money.
This and the other sharp conflicts that raged throughout the debate made the slugfest worthwhile, but the whole YouTube aspect had little to do with why this debate was watchable; it's crunch time, and the gimmick became irrelevant.
So have CNN and YouTube found the formula to rope in more viewers? Not yet. If this format is going to catch on, it has to strike a balance between the weird, disorganized potpourri of questions that aired in July (Slavery reparations? Favorite teachers?), and the narrow range of queries that we saw last night, delivered almost exclusively by dour dudes with digicams.
Elise Waxenberg is a senior at Dartmouth College and executive editor of The Dartmouth.