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THE NATION | ON TV: ELECTION '08 / PAUL BROWNFIELD

Presidential campaign mash-up, version 1.0

July 24, 2007|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Meet Chris, from Portland, Ore. CNN was using him as a representative hipster from Planet YouTube in the first moments of the CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate Monday night in Charleston, S.C.

In his uploaded video, Chris implored the candidates to remember to please answer the questions posed to them "versus beating around the bush." Or maybe it was "Bush."

What was interesting about Chris was not his admonition but his look -- the soul patch of facial hair and biceps tattoo. It was supposed to signal what this evening was, an unprecedented mash-up of cultures: the renegade Web, where you can say anything, melded into a presidential primary, which involves a different sort of rhetorical skill -- saying everything.

The two forces, in the end, seemed to battle to a draw.

Involving YouTube in this process was supposed to put the candidates off their game -- or so CNN kept saying, teasing the event with increasing hyperbole, which on Monday included a staple cable news alarmism.

We speak, of course, of the countdown clock.

It was the uploaders, not the candidates, who were on good behavior. It was the uploaders who asked the questions in a timely fashion, the candidates who kept hearing Anderson Cooper prod them with that word -- "time" -- as they refused the preposterous business of squeezing the whys and hows of leaving Iraq into a one-minute answer.

"Our soldiers died in Vietnam in vain!" screamed the Democratic outsider Mike Gravel at one point. "You can now go to Hanoi and get a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone!"

Now there was the spirit of YouTube and the Web -- raw and uncensored and entertainingly half-cocked. In the end, though, the event didn't amount to a lot more than an interesting sort of town hall, people able to crawl through their broadband connections and meet the candidates.

Sort of.

Because it remained, mostly, a one-way conversation -- powerful people talking to a giant screen, addressing other people who weren't actually there. Thus it was strange when Hillary Clinton addressed "Rob" from Irvine personally.

When CNN does this again, with the Republicans in September, they ought to do more of what they did with the Rev. Reggie Longcrier of Hickory, N.C., who pointedly asked John Edwards how he squared his religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage with the idea of using government to legislate against civil rights.

"I feel enormous personal conflict about this issue," Edwards said, before CNN sprang the reveal -- Longcrier was in the audience to follow up.

Edwards, in the end, kept to the middle ground: He was personally opposed to same-sex marriage but would not use presidential powers to oppose it.

But he, like the others, seemed at least to be trying to meet the intimacy that YouTube nation engendered.

At one point Cooper noted that a number of YouTubers hid behind their cute kids to ask adult questions. But on this night, CNN was hiding a little too -- behind technology to make a long campaign season seem that much shorter.

Paul Brownfield is a Times television critic. For more on politics, go to www.latimes.com/topoftheticket.

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