Viewer's Guide to the Republican CNN/YouTube Debate

Look for fairness but nothing too controversial. And a Ron Paul query.

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The Republican presidential candidates, (L-R) Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney, at the Republican Party Of Florida debate on October 21, 2007.

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Four months after Democrats took a stab at answering questions posed by a snowman, a lesbian couple, and a tax-hating minstrel, it's the Republicans' turn.

The rescheduled CNN/YouTube Republican debate will take place Wednesday night in St. Petersburg, Fla., where GOP hopefuls will get their chance to answer about 40 handpicked videotaped queries submitted by ordinary citizens to the video-sharing website YouTube.

While almost 5,000 videos were uploaded to the site from users of all backgrounds, ages, and political persuasions, a handful of CNN journalists are the ones responsible for choosing those that will actually be put in front of the candidates. There's no way to tell which questions are going to picked, but here are five things viewers can watch for while tuning in to the debate.

1. The Return of the Snowman


The CNN/YouTube Republican debate was the debate that almost didn't happen. Originally scheduled for September, several of the front-runners, including John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney, said they wouldn't be able to make it. Former Massachusetts Governor Romney was the most adamantly opposed to the new debate format. "I think from what I've heard that level of respectfulness was breached." Romney said. "I don't know if it makes sense to have people running for president answering questions posed from snowmen." (Billiam the Snowman was interested in hearing the Democrats' views on global warming.) Upon hearing that the GOP hopefuls were getting cold feet, Republican bloggers and activists banned together and created SavetheDebate.com, a website encouraging the Republican candidates to get on board. Even the snowman asked candidate Romney to "lighten up slightly." The debate was saved and rescheduled for this week—making it even more influential, according to one of the SavetheDebate.com founders, Patrick Ruffini, since it is now one of the last GOP debates before the important Iowa caucuses held in early January. And even more questions were submitted for this debate than for the Democratic debate—about 2,000 additional—including one from Billiam the Snowman asking Romney how he responds to being called a "flip-flopper."

2. (At Least Some) GOP-Friendly Questions


Once the debate was rescheduled, the focus of SavetheDebate.com transitioned. The website's founders encouraged conservatives to submit questions on issues of particular interest to Republican voters in hopes that they would challenge the perception that Republicans are less Web-savvy than their Democratic counterparts. Browsing through some of the almost 5,000 submissions, Ruffini and Rob Bluey, a blogger for the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said they were pleased with the quality of the questions coming from conservatives; however, they said they didn't want CNN to pick all conservative questions for the candidates. "I hope that they have some tough questions that come from the left and come from the right," Bluey said. "Nobody wants to see them select softball questions." However, Ruffini noted that the majority of the questions posed to the Democrats at their CNN/YouTube debate in July seemed to be coming from Democratic voters. "It's now up to the moderators to ask questions that are broadly representative of the political spectrum," Ruffini said.

3. Nothing Too Controversial


However, leaving the question choices up to CNN was a point of contention for the Democratic debate and continues to be controversial for the Republican one as well. While there is a mixed bag of questions CNN can choose from, one comment by CNN's David Bohrman caught the attention of bloggers. Bohrman told the New York Times that CNN would be pitching out any Democratic "gotcha" questions, using gay marriage and abortion as examples. TechPresident's Josh Levy asked his readers why Republicans couldn't answer questions about gay marriage. "Wait, I'm confused. I thought gay marriage and abortion were also Republican issues?" he wrote. Marty Kaplan, blogging on the Huffington Post's website, also railed against CNN's editorial control, saying the decision to strip the debate of "heartfelt inquiries about gayness in America" was disrespectful to members of Log Cabin, an organization for gay Republicans, as well as other gay Republicans. Ruffini pointed out that CNN couldn't be too biased in its selection process because all the questions submitted are posted online. This layer of transparency could allow someone to go through and examine whether the network's selections were too partial after the debate.