CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Lesbians asking about gay marriage. Two unrelated parents with sons in Iraq asking about the war. And a snowman asking about global warming?
Video questions submitted to the hip Web site YouTube shook up the usual campaign debate Monday night. The questions, most of them coming from young people, were blunt and earnest, yet sometimes bizarre.
"He needs help," Delaware Sen. Joe Biden said after watching a video of a man holding an automatic weapon and asking how the candidates would protect his "baby." "I don't know if he's mentally qualified to own that gun."
The revelations that the questions elicited ranged from the ridiculous to the grave. John Edwards didn't like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's bright coral jacket. More seriously, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama would be willing to meet individually with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea during the first year of his presidency, while Clinton would not.
"I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes," she said. Her campaign quickly posted video of her answer online, trying to show she has a different understanding of foreign policy than her chief rival.
The innovative questions added an Internet age twist to the oldest forum in politics - a debate.
"The greatest innovation of this debate is that we're seeing candidates respond to real voters instead of polished TV personalities," said Michael Silberman of the online consulting firm EchoDitto. "It's a win for the candidates who are at their best when addressing voters. It's a win for democracy, since average Americans outside of the early primary states now have the opportunity to ask direct questions of candidates."
Two video submissions featured men singing about topics that usually aren't the stuff of lyrics - taxes and the No Child Left Behind education bill. The first question began with a voter named Zach asking, "Wassup?" Another featured two men from Tennessee playing hillbillies and asking if all the talk about Al Gore entering the race hurt their feelings. "I think the people of Tennessee just had their feelings hurt," Biden responded.
Because the questions were asked differently, candidates normally loath to stray from talking points had to answer differently, said Democratic consultant Dan Newman. "Future debate organizers will take note and look for unique gimmicks to keep the countless debates interesting during this marathon campaign," he said.
Democratic strategist Kiki McLean said the format got the candidates to speak "in real language, not citing legislative bill numbers."
Yet sometimes they had to be pressed to answer directly. Clinton was asked three times whether she would put U.S. troops into the Darfur region of Sudan before she answered no.
After a video of a pastor asking Edwards if it's acceptable to use his religion to deny gay marriage, Edwards talked about his personal conflict over the issue. The pastor was sitting in the audience and said he didn't hear everything he wanted to hear. Edwards responded flatly that it's not right to use religion to deny anyone their rights and he won't do it.
The candidates were asked whether they would take the presidency at minimum wage. Most said yes. "Well, we can afford to work for the minimum wage because most folks on this stage have a lot of money," Obama said. When Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd tried to protest that he wasn't in the same league, Obama said, "You're doing all right, Chris."
Questions about health care came from brothers spoon-feeding dinner to a father suffering with Alzheimer's, a woman sitting with her mother suffering from diabetes, a man in a wheelchair and a 36-year-old woman who pulled off her wig and declared her hope to be a breast cancer survivor.
"We should be outraged by these stories," Edwards said, his voice rising as he pounded his podium.
Their struggles fit in perfectly with Edwards' message of the night - there are too many important issues to focus on the $400 haircuts that he got and are dogging his campaign. Candidates were asked to produce their own YouTube-style videos, and Edwards set his to the theme from the 1968 musical "Hair." It includes serious images including several from Iraq and ends with the text: "What really matters? You Choose."
Dodd's video also was about his hair. "The guy with the white hair for the White House," it said. Clinton's video-ad ended with the kicker, "Sometimes the best man for a job is a woman."
The candidates gathered at the military college The Citadel in South Carolina, site of one of the earliest primaries - Jan. 29. Many questions focused on the Iraq war.
Asked if Democrats are playing politics with the war, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said yes. "The Democrats have failed the people," he said.
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel said U.S. soldiers are dying in vain. No other candidate would go that far.
Obama took the opportunity to take a slap at his rivals who voted to give Bush authority to invade Iraq. "The time to ask how we're going to get out of Iraq was before we got in," he said, without naming Clinton, Edwards and others.
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico said he's the only candidate pledging to remove troops within six months. "Our troops have become targets," he said. 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."
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 2½-year-old online video community. CNN and YouTube planned to host a similar event for the nine Republican candidates on Sept. 17.
The debate aside, YouTube has already left its mark on politics. Republican George Allen lost his Senate seat and a likely spot in the 2008 presidential race after a YouTube video caught him referring to a man of South Asian decent as "macaca" - an ethnic slur in some countries.
In the presidential campaign, buzz-worthy video clips have included Bill and Hillary Clinton's spoof of "The Sopranos" finale, Edwards' combing his hair to the tune "I Feel Pretty," and a buxom model professing her crush on Obama.
Most of the candidates use social networking tools popularized by YouTube and MySpace.com to draw voters to their sites and create a sense of community. Some of the Democratic candidates planned to answers supporters' questions on their sites after the debate.