Democratic presidential hopefuls were asked about Iraq, the military draft and the candidates' own place in what many regard as a broken political system in an Internet debate shown on cable TV.
"Wassup?" came the first question Monday night, from a voter named Zach, after another, named Chris, opened the CNN-YouTube debate with a barb aimed at the entire eight-candidate field: "Can you as politicians ... actually answer questions rather than beat around the bush?"
The answer was a qualified yes. The candidates faced a slew of blunt questions - from earnest to the ridiculous - and, in many cases, responded in kind.
To Senator Barack Obama of Illinois: Are you black enough? "You know, when I'm catching a cab in Manhattan ... I'm giving my credentials," he replied. Blacks frequently complain that New York cab drivers drive by without picking them up.
To Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York: Are you feminine enough? "I couldn't run as anything other than a woman," she said.
Her answer drew a challenge from former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who said he was the best advocate for women on the debate stage. "I have the strongest, boldest ideas," he said.
The debate featured questions submitted to the online video community YouTube and screened by the all-news cable TV network CNN. The gathering was held at a military college in South Carolina, site of one of the earliest primary elections in the 2008 presidential campaign - Jan. 29.
The Democrats skirmished over the Iraq war, as they have before.
Asked if Democrats are playing politics with the war, Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said yes. "The Democrats have failed the people," he said.
Obama took the opportunity to take a slap at his rivals who voted to give Bush authority to invade Iraq, including Clinton and Edwards. "The time to ask how we're going to get out of Iraq was before we got in," he said.
Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico said he is the only candidate pledging to remove troops within six months. "Our troops have become targets," he said. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware said Richardson's goal was unrealistic.
Sensing her position was under attack, Clinton bristled as she argued that U.S. troops must be removed from Iraq "safely and orderly and carefully."
Clinton, Obama and Edwards lead in most polls of the Democratic field.
The Democratic gathering marked a turning point in political communications. CNN, a landmark all-news cable network when founded 27 years ago, is now part of a media establishment coming to terms with upstarts like the 2Ѕ-year-old online video community.
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