Digital Debate for Democratic Presidential Hopefuls

YouTube has already made quite a mark on campaign 2008.

Monday night, the influence of the video-sharing Web site becomes official when it co-hosts a unique presidential debate. The groundbreaking format will allow the eight Democratic candidates to square off against each other — and answer voters' questions submitted via video.

It's possible more Americans are familiar with the Internet phenomenon Obama Girl, seen in a provocative music video, singing "I Got A Crush on Obama," than they are about Sen. Obama's position on health care.

Political viral videos on YouTube and other similar Web sites have a starring role in campaign 2008 — including a swipe at former Sen. John Edwards that features him grooming his hair to the tune of "I Feel Pretty."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, of the University of Pennsylvania's School for Communication, says video messages are powerful. "Whether it is in the form of a traditional broadcast ad or on YouTube, that potentially can shape perceptions. Perceptions can shape votes."

Candidates, too, are embracing the medium. A number of candidates have provided viewers with clips from town hall meetings. Sen. Hillary Clinton even filmed an Internet video, spoofing "The Sopranos" final TV episode. It was shot in a diner and featured her husband, Bill, and fried onion rings.

In Monday night's debate, the Democratic candidates will answer questions up-loaded from actual voters onto the YouTube Web site. Some of them are silly, such as a woman in a bathrobe singing a plea to the candidates to do something about telephone call center outsourcing.

Others are personal, like the one that shows two women asking the candidates if they would allow them to marry each other.

But, some are deadly serious. One touching submission shows two men with their elderly mother who has Alzheimer's. As one of the sons feeds their mother with a spoon, he asks what the candidates are prepared to do to fight the debilitating disease.

Health care was just one of the popular topics.

A top YouTube executive said he was surprised that there were more questions about education, Darfur, and the environment than about the war in Iraq.

But not everyone is so enthralled with YouTube.

Ian Bogost, assistant professor at Georgia Tech, says, "I don't think we should mistake Obama Girl for politics. It's entertainment. It's entertainment focused on politics."

Of course, with a less than 50 percent voter participation rate, perhaps any focus on politics is constructive.

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