Last Monday's CNN/YouTube debate was widely panned by the right, so it came as little surprise when Gov. Mitt Romney expressed his hesitance at potentially addressing questions from talking snowmen during the proposed GOP YouTube debate set for September 17 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Rudy Giuliani avoided criticizing the format but said he would likely be unable to participate due to scheduling conflicts. With the two frontrunners slinking away and only two confirmed participants, the status of the debate was suddenly up in the air.
Since then, however, prominent elements of the right-wing blogosphere have rallied in support of the debate insisting that avoiding the debate would demonstrate a lack of fortitude and continue to present the picture that Republicans are out of touch with the internet and young people. Patrick Ruffini, the former eCampaign director for the Republican National Committee, has been leading, setting up an on-line petition at his newly created website Save the Debate. He directed his letter at the seven declared candidates who had not yet signed onto the debates, everyone except Sen. John McCain and Rep. Ron Paul:
"Don't attend, and millions of Americans will wonder if you were too afraid to answer questions from the Internet, just as Democrats were afraid to go on Fox News. None of you could have gotten to where you are now without showing real political courage. Is that really how you'd like to be known? ... Republicans cannot write off the Internet. Thus far, the Democratic candidates have dramatically outperformed Republicans online, most alarmingly in online fundraising. We believe this is a direct result of failing to effectively engage the medium and seize the tremendous opportunity of bottom-up grassroots activism ... And Republicans cannot write off the youth vote. A recent poll showed Democrats with a staggering 24-point advantage among 18 to 29 year old voters ... We sincerely hope you will reconsider any decision to snub the critical January 29th primary state of Florida and 51 million unique YouTube users. The Republican Party is about freedom. A free and open debate that includes the American people could be just what the doctor ordered to break the stanglehold of the liberal media."
Michelle Malkin, no fan of the debate, was an early proponent of this position:
"The CNN/YouTube Democrat debate was a circus. I said so. But Republicans shouldn't sit out their turn. And conservatives shouldn't abandon YouTube to the moonbats and jihadists. The GOP candidates should see it as an opportunity ... Wouldn't it be a breath of fresh air to see a Republican candidate take command, show some intestinal fortitude, and kick some MSM/left-wing assets?"
Two other influential staples of the right's online community, Townhall.com and the National Review's blog The Corner, offered their stamps of approval with commentators Robert Bluey (of Townhall) and Mark Steyn also coming out in favor of the debate.
The candidates appear to have been listening. Gov. Tommy Thompson announced he would be participating in the debates, and the St. Petersburg Times reported that Gov. Mike Huckabee was tentatively scheduled to attend. Gov. Romney also altered his position as spokesman Kevin Madden told the New York Times that it's "not a question of format, it's a question of our travel schedule." With Giuliani and Romney now pinning their inability to make it on what they said was an extremely busy part of the fundraising cycle, Think Progress reported that CNN was shifting the debate to a later date. Ron Paul seemed to confirm this move when his campaign blog announced the debate had been moved to December.
Despite the strong support from some and increasing signs that the debate will occur, the right wing blogosphere still appears torn on whether or not the GOP should participate in the debate with Patrick Ruffini's colleague Hugh Hewitt leading the opposition. Here he takes issue with the assertion that Republicans lag behind Democrats online. The framework is there he argues, people just need candidates and issues that excite them:
"I must also dissent partially from Patrick's more persuasive argument about lagging behind Democrats in the online campaign. First, did he see what happened to the immigration bill? That was a grassroots phenomenon, one which overpowered D.C. elites. It represented the combination of online advocacy and talk radio energy ... Second, the GOP's Big Two have excellent web teams and a visit to MittRomney.com and JoinRudy2008.com will prove that ... What the GOP lacks right now is not just some internet talents and a commitment to use them, but a much more fundamental commitment to an agenda that motivates and candidates that believe in it."
Hewitt attempted to bolster his argument by posting audio of some of the questions that have already been submitted. The content of the questions convinced the blogger Publius to abandon his support of Ruffini's pro-debate stance:
"While I wholeheartedly respect Patrick Ruffini for his opinion on why the GOP candidates shouldn't bow out of the debate, the questions spoke for themselves. Out of the two or three dozen questions he chose, there were maybe two that actually made sense or had a point. The rest of the questions were bad, to say the least ... There was a guy (no kidding here) named "Santa Claus" from Tahoe wanting to know what would be done with the millions of impoverished children."
Jed Babbins at Human Events dismisses the CNN sponsored debate as "a clown show" but says the GOP should proceed with their on version:
"There's a simple substitute the Republicans should adopt immediately, and get back on the air with it. Drop CNN/YouTube like a hot rock, and replace them with C-SPAN or Fox to host a debate in which the questions are asked by conservative bloggers. With a blog debate, they'd steal the show."
Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters is also in favor of having the debate but doing so with different sponsors:
"How can we engage voters in a national forum through the New Media, while keeping the debate substantive and serious? I have a simple solution: have CNN cede the editorial/selection process to the New Media, in the form of the blogosphere ... How does this solve the argument? It removes CNN from any responsibility for the question selection, shielding them from bias allegations. It puts the onus on the New Media to act responsibly in its question selection. This mechanism truly would make the candidates accountable directly to the people who will vote for them in the primary races. The candidates would have no excuses to avoid this debate, either."
Dan Riehl also likes the idea of moving forward with the debate while leaving CNN behind:
"Who needs CNN? A non-network affiliated effort that produced a good product would likely receive attention from every network, with plenty of clips and snippets showing up on broadcast and cable television. And the whole thing would be available via You Tube. Some other networks even dissed CNN for its effort, as opposed to promoting it."
Allah Pundit at Hot Air, however, doesn't think proceeding with a debate while leaving CNN out of it is a good idea:
"Demanding a change in rules after the Dem debate's already gone off actually looks worse, I think, than pulling out altogether ... If you say you're okay with the format but want the questions approved by people who lean your way, you're admitting you won't step in to the box unless you're expecting softballs. Not only is that PR poison but it makes no sense given that the GOP's already participated in a CNN debate on June 5. If the prospect of fielding a question from a talking snowman is that disquieting to you, just concede that the Democrats were right to walk away from Fox and walk away."
Marie Cocco with the Oregon Statesman Journal has an entirely different objection to the format that can't be changed by who sponsors it or selects the questions:
"For me, the novelty of the YouTube debate wasn't its newness. It was its undertone of crassness ... There is something about the Internet that makes people feel they can be blunt or irreverent or even profane -- the language of instant messaging and e-mail. This isn't the tone at a traditional town hall meeting where candidates take questions, and where those asking the questions are amid their neighbors, co-workers and friends. Abandoning the electronic town hall and returning to the high school gym or church basement won't make presidential politics less democratic. Just a bit more decorous."
Beth Reinhard of The Miami Herald points out tactical mistakes on the part of the Giuliani and Romney:
"It's baffling why Romney, polling in the single digits in Florida, would blow off a chance to raise his profile. Giuliani, the front-running candidate, says he, too, is unlikely to show ... At a time when candidates are embracing social networking over the Internet like never before, Giuliani has no Facebook page. Of all of the major candidates, he has raised the least amount of money online."
Off the Bus's own Zach Exley explores the gap in online fundraising and concludes that Republicans concerns about online fundraising are well-founded and will be compounded by skipping out on the YouTube debate. However, the potential for a rival online machine is their for the Republicans, they just need to work for it:
"Is a grassroots base available for the GOP in 2008? Absolutely. Supporting the underdog is what a grassroots base lives for. Of course, participating in the YouTube debate will not conjure that base single handedly. That is going to take a lot of work over time for the GOP campaigns. But walking away from this first-ever "People's Debate" is certainly a good way to douse whatever kindling the GOP might have."
He also links to Michael Bassik at Tech President who crunched the numbers and disproves the conventional wisdom and common complaint that YouTube is a tool of the left:
"According to comScore, YouTube actually attracts more Republicans than Democrats. Specifically, there are 3.3 million self-identified Republicans on the user-generated video site versus 3.1 million Democrats. (An addition 5 million consider themselves independent.)"