CHARLESTON, S.C. - Democratic candidates for president took some of the most direct, unvarnished and at times rude questions of the race at their Monday night debate, thanks to a new format that put the questioning in the hands of U.S. voters who sent in home videos through the Internet.
Is Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., authentically black? Is Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., sufficiently feminine by U.S. standards, or so feminine that Arab leaders could never take her seriously?
Is former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., emulating historic racists by using his Baptist upbringing as an explanation for his position on gay marriage? Would he support reparations for slavery or just be "dipping and dodging" the question?
In the style of practiced debaters, the Democrats received the questions graciously - thanking the questioners for even the most cutting of inquiries - and then generally tried to reframe them to fit their talking points.
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Candidates gave a few answers previously unheard in this long summer of debates and forums, on an array of topics that Americans evidently think about but which panelists rarely broach in the button-down format of the traditional debate.
Highlights included Obama asserting that he never has to explain how black he is when trying to catch a cab. Clinton said she wouldn't use the word "liberal" to describe her politics but rather prefers the term "progressive."
Edwards said he feels "enormous conflict" as he wrestles with his religious faith and his feelings about gay marriage, which he does not support. The question came from a black minister who pointed out that religion was used to justify slavery, segregation and denying women the right to vote, and then said, "Why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans their full and equal rights?"
All of the eight candidates except Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said they do not support reparations for the descendants of American slaves, and everyone on the stage said they think it's a good idea for young women to register for the draft at age 18 just as their male peers must. None supports the institution of a draft.
The debate was the first sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, but that hadn't seemed like much of a distinction in the run-up. The candidates have met several times throughout the spring and summer, and while there had been a few unscripted moments along the way the meetings were mostly staid and traditional.
But the citizen-panelists asked questions that haven't come up in public much before, and candidates ended up answering many of them fairly directly.
Clinton listed some of the many nations she visited as first lady when she was asked by a U.S. soldier serving in Japan whether leaders in Islamic nations, where women are often relegated to subservient roles, would take her seriously.
"I believe that there isn't much doubt in anyone's mind that I can be taken seriously," she said. "Other countries have had women presidents and prime ministers. ... It would be quite appropriate to have a woman president deal with the Arab and Muslim countries on behalf of the United States of America."
Clinton offered an answer with more nuance than Obama when asked whether they would be willing to meet separately, without preconditions, during the first year of their administrations with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
"I would," Obama said. "The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration, is ridiculous."
Clinton said she would not offer to talk so quickly.
"I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are," she said. "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse."