Six Republican presidential candidates participated in a tea-party sponsored debate on Twitter on Wednesday — and the results showed both the promise and the limits of the social medium.
The format allowed the six, Reps. Michele Bachmann and Thaddeus McCotter, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and businessman Herman Cain, to interact directly with supporters and detractors — and allowed their respective messages to be relayed and retweeted across the ever-expanding platform.
The downside: Each candidate had to compress those messages into 140-character bursts, which meant most could only address issues in a general way, using familiar bullet-style talking points.
Their responses frequently overlapped each other, resembling a virtual dinner party where all the guests shout at the same time.
It took awhile to get going, as well, as each candidate laboriously pounded out an abbreviated opening statement. Thirty-five minutes into the event, not a single question had been asked.
After that, the candidates answered a series of broad questions, largely signaling their similar positions with respect to repealing the Democratic healthcare overhaul, reducing regulatory burdens on business, and cutting government spending.
Most said that the U.S. had no business intervening in the ongoing Libyan conflict, with Bachmann suggesting that the administration, in formally recognizing a rebel group, could be aiding terrorists.
McCotter, a congressman from Michigan who recently entered the race, said that while he disagreed with the White House’ rationale for becoming involved, the U.S. could not simply walk away. Johnson, a libertarian, said he would pull forces out of Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCotter’s opening remarks illustrated the curious mix of the apocalyptic and the abbreviated that often marked the event:
“Our American Dream is endangered. America's dismantling. Abroad, our troops fight terrorists & tyrants; Iran goes nuclear,” he tweeted. “communist China claims the 21st Century. At home, R 14 mil unemployed; 30+ mil underemployed; inflation up; real wages down.”
There were few uncomfortable questions asked of the participants and little talk about the debt ceiling crisis in Washington except in general terms. Bachmann again restated her opposition to raising the limit, a sentiment shared by many of the attendees of the event.
And, again, the nature of the circumscribed replies engendered by Twitter allowed candidates to say as little as they wanted. Bachmann was asked about the sizable minority of American individuals and businesses that don’t pay taxes, and replied, “Simple. Fair. Flat. Everyone should pay something.”
The prompted a follow-up question: “Are you talking about Fair Tax or Flat Tax?” that drifted off into the digital ether, unanswered.
The most compelling aspect of the debate may have been the Twitter statistics: Bachmann's name was mentioned the most often by Twitter participants (1,238), while Cain's words were retweeted the most often (1,211).
According to the organizers, The Tea Party.net, there were 3,800 mentions of candidates and 4,500 retweets of their comments.
Neither Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty nor Ron Paul participated in the debate, but a new poll Wednesday showed that it may be in the best interests of candidates such as the ones who did attend to start distinguishing themselves from each other.
A poll by Public Policy Polling indicated that an “electability” gap is widening between Romney and the rest of the GOP field, with Romney the only Republican who is showing the potential to compete and perhaps beat President Obama.