CHARLESTON, S.C. — Sometimes, the questions get as much attention as the answers.
That was the case when a reporter asked presidential candidate Gary Hart whether he'd cheated on his wife. That was the case as well when a debate questioner asked Michael Dukakis how he'd respond if his wife were raped and murdered.
So it was again Monday night, as Democratic presidential candidates met at The Citadel college campus to debate. This time, however, they faced questions not from a journalist, but from voters, whose inquiries were sent in by video via the YouTube Web site.
The questions ran the gamut from serious to offbeat, all in the more familiar voices of real people who put their faces on issues of the day. They included a gay couple asking if they could be married, a father of a dead soldier asking if the candidates had family members serving in uniform and two people who asked pointed questions on Iraq from very different viewpoints.
In one personal video, the Rev. Reggie Longcrier of Hickory, N.C., noted that politicians once used religion to justify slavery, segregation and men-only voting.
"So why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans their full and equal rights?" he said, pressing former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina to justify using his own religious beliefs in explaining his opposition to gay marriage.
The normally smooth-talking Edwards appeared to struggle with the question, saying he didn't think a president should impose his religious beliefs on the country — but that he still opposed gay marriage. "I feel enormous conflict about it," he said.
In another video, two women identified as Mary and Jen from New York asked, "Would you allow us to be married to each other?"
For the record, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico said no; Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said yes.
There were lighthearted approaches to the videos as well, such as one question posed by a snowman about global warming and another asking whether any of the candidates would serve as president for the minimum wage.
Those who committed to working for minimum wage: Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Edwards, former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, Kucinich and Richardson. Dodd said he couldn't afford to, and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said he could afford to work for the minimum wage but didn't commit.
The video questions were culled by CNN from roughly 3,000 sent in via YouTube, which draws hundreds of thousands of video contributions every day.
The march of citizen video into politics might not have the revolutionary impact that television had a half-century ago — despite predictions of such an upheaval Monday from YouTube's founders. Debates for years have featured questions posed by voters, albeit not with the pizzazz of YouTube.
Still, the role of citizen-generated video and viral marketing via the Internet are already changing politics, at least around the edges, as voters gain a new, less filtered voice and politicians rush to find new ways to reach them.
The debate posed two questions about the Iraq war from two different perspectives.
"How do we pull out now?" asked Barry Mitchell of Philadelphia, pressing the candidates to explain how they could secure the country and the region after a withdrawal.
"We can't just pull out now," said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware. "A diplomatic surge" would secure the region, said Obama.
Looked at differently, a mother of a soldier deployed in Iraq pressed the Democrats to get U.S. troops out now. "How many more soldiers must die?" she asked.
Clinton said she tried to get Republican support for a resolution that would set a timetable for withdrawal. Richardson said the troops should all be withdrawn by the end of this year.
YouTube's founders and executives said Monday that they hope the video phenomenon will draw more people into politics.
"We saw what TV did for bringing politicians into people's living rooms. What YouTube is doing now is bringing the voters out of their living rooms," said Steve Grove, the head of news and politics for YouTube.
"It's breaking down barriers," YouTube cofounder Steve Chen said during a lunch with reporters. "You don't have to be in Iowa or New Hampshire to pose a question of the candidates."
It's also changing the way political campaigns pitch those voters.
Just since March, candidates have contributed 1,200 videos, viewed a total of 13 million times.
The candidates also unveiled 30-second videos during Monday's debate, many of them offbeat.
Edwards, for example, juxtaposed pictures of war and poverty with music punctuating what he considers silly criticism of his own expensive haircuts. "What really matters?" the spot asked.
Dodd tied his white hair with valuable experience, closing with the slogan, "Dodd, the guy with white hair for the White House."
ON THE WEB
To see the videos used in the debate, go to http://www.youtube.com/debates