SOON ENOUGH, the presidential candidates will figure out this strange new YouTube phenomenon, and will learn how to stay "on message" in the face of ordinary voters on a 25-foot video screen asking their views on Mars exploration or the Confederate flag. But so far at least, the YouTube debate format has provoked fresh questions and unscripted answers in this otherwise overproduced campaign.
Wednesday night's Republican debate was the crispest engagement of the issues so far among the eight candidates, as voters relaxing in their dens or kitchens - practically in their pajamas - lobbed sometimes cheeky, sometimes poignant questions through the tube. The questions pierced the protective bubbles the candidates travel in and showed what a big, diverse country this really is.
One bespectacled young woman from Arlington, Texas, asked the candidates who want to outlaw abortion what should happen to a woman who has one anyway. What should her punishment be? The question ripped the issue away from the programmed pro-choice/pro-life interest groups and forced the candidates to confront the real consequences of their policies. It was the kind of question a national TV anchor would never ask. Of course, the candidates all mumbled that they wouldn't throw the woman in jail.
The voters wanted specifics: name three programs you would cut to reduce the debt; do you believe every word in the Bible? Moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN admirably kept the candidates focused on the voter's precise question. And unlike previous attempts to inject "real people" into the debates, the YouTube participants crafting questions in advance weren't tongue-tied with stagefright when their big moment came.
Perhaps befitting a medium that rewards the home-grown and genuine, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Senator John McCain each had a good night, speaking from the heart on matters of personal conviction. Both men's best moments came rebutting Mitt Romney.
Huckabee defended state scholarships for graduates with sterling academic records, even if their parents are illegal immigrants. He chided Romney for punishing children for the sins of their parents. "We're a better country than that," he said.
McCain, a former prisoner of war, was visibly emotional when he explained to Romney that waterboarding is indeed torture. Romney kept insisting he wouldn't define what torture is and isn't. "Well then, you would have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva Conventions," McCain replied.
Many issues went missing Wednesday night: There were no questions on education or the environment, for example. But there are other debates for that. In the constant cat-and-mouse game between the candidates and the press chasing after an unguarded moment, the intimacy of a new medium stole the show. Score this one for the people.