ST. PETERSBURG – There was Chris Nandor of Snohomish County, Wash., guitar in hand, giving some of the most powerful Republican politicians in the country a tongue-in-cheek musical introduction.
Jay Fox of Boulevard, Calif., popped off a series of shots with his rifle before asking candidates about their stance on gun control and the Second Amendment, then cocked the gun and jokingly told candidates they should answer freely.
And there was a digital version of Uncle Sam, voiced by Ronald Lanham of Mobile, Ala., grilling candidates on their tax policies, and a cartoonish Dick Cheney, voiced by editorial cartoonist Nick Anderson, asking about the limits of vice presidential power.
As GOP candidates enter the home stretch before primaries begin in January, video footage of politically interested citizens took center stage at Mahaffey Theatre on Wednesday night in a CNN/YouTube debate, where YouTube users’ questions were as compelling as the answers they provoked.
“This truly is the people’s debate,” said Gov. Charlie Crist, who introduced the candidates before the debate, which was moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “It’s about the future of America – about integrity, about honor, about duty and about loyalty.”
The debate, held just blocks from the heart of USF St. Petersburg’s waterfront campus, could mark a turning point in a Republican race in which no overwhelmingly favored candidate has emerged.
Hundreds of reporters, photographers and videographers converged on the theater, which was surrounded by thousands of feet of barricades and a large contingent of officers from the city’s police force.
An array of lights, teleprompters and video cameras and a huge 25-foot video screen for airing the questions transformed the inside of the theater into something resembling a sprawling television studio.
Wednesday marked the second debate of the CNN/YouTube partnership. The first, for Democratic candidates in July, drew more than 26 million viewers. The July event was marked by colorful submissions, including a digital snowman that asked about global warming and a man wondering about firearm control laws who referred to a gun he owned as “his baby.”
The questions in the debate, culled from about 5,000 YouTube submissions by CNN producers before the event, centered around hot-button issues – immigration, abortion, taxation and the Iraq war. Though the format was novel, few of the candidates revealed much about themselves or their policies that was surprising.
Noticeably absent from the debate was discussion about Iran, healthcare or Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.
The first salvos fired in the debate were the loudest and also the most personal, as Romney and Giuliani, the two Republican poll leaders, squared off in a game of verbal one-upmanship, each vying for the title of toughest on immigration.
Responding to Romney’s tagging of New York as a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, Giuliani fired back, chiding the Mass. governor for having illegal immigrants work in his mansion.
“It just happens that you have a special immigration problem that no one up here has,” Giuliani said. “You were employing illegal immigrants. That’s a pretty serious thing.”
A series of follow-up immigration questions gave other candidates a chance to weigh-in, including former Tenn. Sen. Fred Thompson, who splashed into the political race relatively late, and has lost momentum since then.
“A nation that cannot and will not defend its own borders cannot remain a sovereign nation,” Thompson said.
Discussion also turned to abortion, as candidates were quizzed on whether they thought Roe v. Wade should be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and how they would respond if it were. Romney moved to an anti-abortion position since he ran for governor.
“I was wrong, all right,” Romney said. “I’m proud to be pro-life and I’m not going to be apologizing for people for becoming pro-life.”
When a viewer’s question turned the discussion to tax policy, Huckabee’s crack that he’d like to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service drew some guffaws from the audience.
“Most people in this country are more afraid of an audit than a mugging, and there’s a reason why,” Huckabee said.
McCain, the staunchest proponent of the war in Iraq, and Huckabee, the strongest anti-war candidate in the debate, butted heads over foreign policy midway through the debate.
McCain’s headbutting continued with Romney when the video submission of Andrew Jones, a college student from Seattle, Wash, opened debate about the use of waterboarding and other methods of torture.
McCain bristled when Romney said he applauded the treatment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a member of al Quaeda who was an integral part of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mohammed was allegedly waterboarded while being held at Guantanamo Bay.
“I am astonished you could think such a torture could be inflicted on anyone,” McCain said. “It’s a violation of the Geneva Convention. If we’re going to get the high ground in this world and we’re going be the America we have cherished and loved for more than 200 years, we’re not going to torture people.”
The most personal video submission came toward the end of the night, from Keith Kerr, an openly gay former brigadier general in the Army, who asked candidates if they thought homosexuals fit poorly into the U.S. military.
After a round of answers from candidates, who generally supported the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, Cooper gave Kerr, who was in the audience, a chance to give some feedback.
“With all due respect, I did not get an answer from the candidates,” Kerr said.