A Debate For The Internet Age

The Internet is changing political campaigns dramatically — candidates are announcing, running ads and raising money on the Web. Now, for the first time, the questions for a debate came from the public, through YouTube.

The questions are raw, direct and unedited, says CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric. Online submissions for tonight's CNN/YouTube Democratic debate at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., make the Internet seem a model of citizen involvement. But since anyone can upload anything, citizen involvement also means freedom of expression.

The self-anointed "Obama girl," not authorized by the campaign, has gotten more than 2.5 million hits on YouTube.

"But the problem," says Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, "is that video makes Barack Obama look sexy and smooth and kind of like a player. That is not the image his management wants him to have."

There's even a "Giuliani Girl" rebuttal.

The Internet is playing an unprecedented role in this campaign. Every candidate has a huge Web presence — including Fred Thompson, who hasn't even announced yet. Many are using it to make themselves seem uber hip in cyberspace.

A week after "The Sopranos" signed off, the Clinton campaign posted a takeoff from the show's final episode.

Citizen journalists and viral videos also make politicians fair game 24/7, whether it's a candidate who is comedically challenged or musically challenged.

Clinton's online appeal for campaign song suggestions was so ridiculed, even she mocked it.

"I'm so gratified that all of you thought this was such a wonderful idea ... Are you freaking kidding me?"

"Then, of course, there's the enormous amount of stuff that is simply embarrassing," says Robert Thompson. "My favorite to date was John Edwards primping his hair to the tune of Broadway's "I Feel Pretty.'"

The attempt by presidential candidates to use, and not just be used by, the Internet is really paying off — especially for the Democrats. The Obama, Edwards, and Clinton campaigns have raised more than $28 million in online donations this year alone. Republican candidates Giuliani, McCain and Romney have raised just half that amount.

Andrew Rasiej, founder and publisher of TechPresident.com who tracks candidates' use of cyberspace, says the real million-dollar question is whether any of this will translate into votes.

"The holy grail in online campaigning is whether you can convert that online enthusiasm into offline action," he says.

By the way, YouTube got more than 2,000 questions for the debate. From those, CNN chose about 50.