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Virtual front-runners

The internet is changing the way candidates run for president-at least Democratic candidates.

Virtual front-runners

(CREATING BUZZ: Presidential hopefuls listen to a YouTube question from Shawn Jackson.)

CHARLESTON, S.C.-In an open-air quad in the gleaming-white barracks at The Citadel military college in Charleston, S.C., cadet Ivan Rodriguez is demonstrating a proper march. Five freshmen cadets stand at attention, fixing their gaze on Rodriguez, a junior from Texas in a crisp summer uniform and pristine white gloves. Rodriguez makes precise turns around the quad's red-and-white-checkered floor, tracing the same steps that Citadel cadets have learned for nearly 165 years.

As the new cadets strain to follow marching orders, a small plane flies overhead, pulling a banner bearing a different order: "Stop Her Now." The blunt message paid for by a Washington, D.C.-based political group isn't intended for any of the female cadets below, but for Sen. Hillary Clinton, one of eight Democratic presidential candidates here for a CNN-sponsored televised debate.

The unorthodox advertisement signaled that the July 23 event at the Citadel was no ordinary debate. Instead, the old school made history by hosting a new form of political discourse: For the first time in a televised debate, presidential hopefuls faced questions from ordinary Americans submitted via the internet.

In the weeks leading up to the event, more than 3,000 people logged onto the video-sharing website YouTube.com to send homemade videos featuring their questions for Democratic candidates. CNN and YouTube selected about 40 of the video questions to air during the two-hour debate moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Republican presidential hopefuls will face YouTube questions in a debate of their own this fall. But the fact that Democrats christened the new forum is emblematic of one of the major realities of the 2008 presidential campaign so far: Democrats are dominating Republicans online.

The party's candidates are vastly outstripping the GOP in leveraging the internet for two key purposes: creating buzz and raising money. GOP strategists say old school Republicans must adjust to new school communication if they want to capture the swelling number of voters who absorb most of their information about candidates from the web. Failure online could mean failure on Election Day.

Cadet Tara Woodside isn't ready to predict success or failure yet. The rising senior from Salem, N.J., is following the campaign mostly online, but she says it's too early to pick a favorite: "Right now it's anybody's game."

Hours before Democrats commenced the YouTube debate in an auditorium across campus, Woodside told WORLD she was eager to hear what the candidates would say about the war: "That's definitely the No. 1 issue for me."

For Woodside, the issue is personal. Though she isn't pursuing a career in the military, many of her fellow cadets are planning to enter the service. Woodside knows that could mean tours of duty in Iraq, and she wants to know where candidates stand on the war. She wonders: "What's going to happen to the people I go to school with?"

For a handful of Citadel graduates, that question has already been answered: Scores have died in active military duty since Citadel cadets fired the first shots of the Civil War. At least a dozen have died in Middle Eastern combat since Sept. 11, 2001.

A capacity audience watching the Democratic debate in The Citadel's McAlister Field House rose to its feet when images of the 12 fallen men filled a large screen adjacent to the stage. It was a sober moment in a freewheeling debate that featured questions ranging from rigorous to ridiculous.

The opening word of the first video question of the evening demonstrated that this presidential debate would be different from any other before it. "Wassup?" asked Zach Kempf from Provo, Utah.

A decidedly casual and unpredictable format tested the candidates throughout the night: One moment they were responding to weighty questions about the war or Social Security. The next moment they were facing queries like the one from two men from Murfreesboro, Tenn. In exaggerated Southern accents, the pair asked the candidates about all the media attention given to Al Gore: "What we want to know is does that hurt y'alls feelings?" (The candidates chuckled, but didn't answer the question.)

Many of the videos forced candidates to address broad issues on a personal level. Mary and Jen, two women from Brooklyn, N.Y., asked: "If you were elected president of the United States, would you allow us to be married to each other?"

Congressman Dennis Kucinich answered yes. Sen. Chris Dodd and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson answered no, but followed up with steadfast support for civil unions.

Reggie Longcrier, a minister from Hickory, N.C., directly asked John Edwards why he opposes gay marriage and uses religious reasons to "deny gay Americans their full and equal rights." Edwards answered that he felt "enormous personal conflict" about the issue, but didn't directly address Longcrier's question.

At that point, moderator Anderson Cooper unexpectedly revealed that Longcrier was in the audience. The minister stood and said Edwards had not answered his question. Cooper asked Edwards: "Why is it OK to quote religious beliefs when talking about why you don't support something?" An uncomfortable-looking Edwards replied: "It's not." He added that though he doesn't believe in gay marriage, as president he wouldn't use his faith "as a basis for denying anybody their rights."

Some of the most compelling videos of the evening showed questioners in difficult circumstances. Two brothers from Davenport, Iowa, sat at a kitchen table spoon-feeding their mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. They asked what candidates would do to help fight the illness.

A woman from Long Island, N.Y., removed a wig to reveal her hairless head. "I'm 36 years old and hope to be a future breast cancer survivor," she said. She asked the candidates what they would do to improve the affordability of health insurance for people like her. (All the candidates said they supported universal health-care coverage, but they squabbled over the details of how to make it affordable.)

One of the most pointed questions of the night dealt with the war in Iraq. Barry Mitchell from Philadelphia asked the candidates: "How do we pull out now?" He pointed out the dangers of destabilizing the Middle East and added: "And isn't it our responsibility to get these people on their feet? I mean, do you leave a newborn baby to take care of himself?"

Mitchell's question prompted an extended discussion of the war and foreign policy that led to a clash between front-runners Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Clinton pounced on Obama for saying he would be willing to meet with some of the world's most notorious leaders as president.

"Certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria, until we know better what the way forward would be," she said. (After the debate, Obama's campaign pointed out that earlier this year Clinton criticized President Bush, saying: "I think it is a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people.")

Despite the star power on The Citadel debate stage, by the end of the two-hour event pundits were declaring an unexpected winner: YouTube. In the bustling post-debate "spin room," Andrew Rasiej told WORLD that the debate's video format revealed how the internet could transform a presidential election by making candidates more directly accountable to voters.

Rasiej is the founder of techPresident.com, a research website devoted to reporting on how candidates are using the internet. He said the web is "setting the tone and pace" for the presidential campaign, and that the YouTube debate only "dipped a pinkie toe" into the potential for harnessing the web's power to engage voters.

David All hopes to harness that power for Republicans. All, a GOP web strategist based in Washington, D.C., admits that Republicans lag significantly behind Democrats in using the internet effectively. Republicans have long maintained a well-defined communications structure, he says, but they haven't adapted that structure to the internet age.

One stark sign of the GOP's online weakness is campaign fundraising: Democratic candidates so far have pulled in about $100 million more than Republicans ahead of the 2008 elections. The three leading Democratic presidential candidates raised more than $28 million online through June 30. (Obama raised about $17 million of that online total.)

The top three Republican presidential candidates were much less successful, raising only about $14 million via the internet through June 30. That's barely half of the Democratic total.

Part of Democrats' online success, according to All, is due to a focus on drawing in hundreds of thousands of donors who contribute relatively small amounts at a time. (Online fundraising is also much cheaper than traditional methods like direct mailing.) Obama's campaign says it has a donor list of about 258,000 people, and that about half of those donors haven't yet reached the federal contribution limit of $2,300 per candidate.

Democrats have also carefully cultivated a significant presence on social networking sites that draw in thousands of supporters, including donors. For example, on MySpace.com Obama has more than 151,000 registered "friends," while Clinton boasts a total of 123,00.

Rudy Giuliani, the Republican front-runner, has only 6,764. Giuliani's low total is likely due to the fact that his page on MySpace.com is private and accessible only to those he adds to a list.

All says Republicans must do better if they want to compete with Democrats for online funds, as well as younger voters who get their information from the web: "We're losing more Gen X voters than we have in decades." All said Republicans should learn a stark lesson about new school campaigning from the first YouTube debate. "No one really cared about the candidates," All said of the audience in the debate hall. "Everyone just wanted to see the next video."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.