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YouTube users can influence debate tonight

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Yes, this is still the YouTube you know and love: The guys from redstateupdate.com want the male Democratic candidates to take off their shirts for an abs contest.

The odds are CNN will not choose that video to air at today's first-of-its-kind U.S. presidential debate in which candidates will answer questions submitted by YouTube users on video. But along with the wackiness, YouTube users are showing their serious side for a chance to have a voice in the presidential race. The GOP candidates get their turn in September.

The CNN-YouTube debate is being heralded for turning a new page in presidential politics, beginning to transform staid debates into an endeavor taken in the spirit of YouTube - technology-driven, a little offbeat and with voters at the controls.

More than 1,576 video questions had been submitted as of Thursday evening, representing a cross-section of issues and coming from as far away as Spain, Panama and Chad.

CNN editors, including today's debate moderator, CNN host Anderson Cooper, will select as many as four dozen to air in the two-hour broadcast from Charleston, S.C. But the submissions, which must be 30 seconds or less, can be viewed at Youtube.com now.

Some are wacky, some are rants, but most are from people asking real-life questions.

Among them: a question on the crisis in Darfur, filmed from inside refugee camps and one about health insurance, delivered by a 35-year-old woman with breast cancer.

Then there is the seven-second snippet of a black cat with a caption asking: "How can you protect my food in the future?"

Cat owner Brandon Mendolson, a 24-year-old grad student in New York, said he's concerned for his six cats, including Molly, who appears in the video, after the recent recall of contaminated pet food. He doesn't even plan to watch the debate, but hopes that enough people will find it on YouTube and e-mail their representatives about the issue.

It's uncertain how many, like Mendolson, will skip the debate, or if more viewers will tune into CNN for the novelty of it all. And many will measure the success of the debate by whether voters glean more about the candidates' in this unconventional format.

But many political observers say it's a worthwhile foray to shake up the political dialogue using popular video-sharing technology.

And, as is the hallmark of YouTube, some of the more compelling videos and their makers are already becoming something of cult figures, if reluctant ones.

Consider Kim, the cancer patient from Long Island, who in her poignant video pulls off her wig to reveal the effects of chemotherapy.

"I don't really want extra publicity unless CNN is doing it, at least not before the debate," she wrote in an e-mail denying a formal interview. "I'm afraid if too much info about me gets out there, I won't be the 'everywoman'; and my video might not get picked."

The John Edwards and Hillary Clinton campaigns stepped up soliciting video questions to their own Web sites.

"Everyone is in search of the right multimedia solution; politics is no different," said Barbara O'Connor, director of California State University-Sacramento's Institute for the Study of Politics and Media.

It's a clever way to "capture CNN's hard-news junkies and YouTube junkies," but she added, "The danger with that is that a lot of people don't subscribe to cable and we have a digital divide in broadband. We're certainly in a different age than when the networks pre-empted programming for a debate."

And not surprising for the digital age there is a debate, mostly fueled in the blogosphere, over the debate itself.

On YouTube, users typically rate videos, giving more exposure to collective favorites. But for this debate, CNN will pare down the hundreds of submissions, not YouTube users, a violation of the spirit of YouTube, some charge.

"Our expectation was that they were really going to use the Web and let the wisdom of the crowd help drive politics in a more democratic way," said David Colarusso, a Massachusetts physics teacher.

So, while on sabbatical in Edinburgh, Scotland, he tweaked his political site to allow anyone, YouTube user or not, to vote on what questions they want to see asked today. It can be reached at www.communitycounts.us.

The most popular videos ask candidates how they feel about atheists and arming Americans with guns. Web sites catering to people with those views have been urging their viewers to vote for the videos.

CNN political director Sam Feist said the network wants the debate "to look and feel different" but still be serious, requiring some judiciousness.

He may have a point: The video submission most viewed by YouTube users by Wednesday afternoon was a send-up by a self-described debate "crasher" from Canada who suggests Californians elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice because "a cyborg of his nature could stop a future nuclear war."

Cognizant of the dangers of the anonymity of the Internet, especially for a reputable news organization, CNN is requiring all submissions aired to include the video makers' name and hometown.

On TV

In South Sound, the CNN-YouTube Democratic presidential debate will air today at 4 and 8 p.m. on CNN.

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