- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The majority of Republican presidential candidates are backing off their objections to participating in the unconventional YouTube debate.

Candidates’ reservations about the seriousness of the format, which features videotaped questions from voters, and the original September date are being resolved and the field is growing, said sources close to the campaigns and debate organizers.

“We’re working with CNN, YouTube and the candidates to find a suitable date,” said Florida Republican Party spokeswoman Erin VanSickle, whose group is co-sponsoring the debate with the cable news network, to be aired live from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Initially, only two of the 10 declared Republican candidates agreed to participate: Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

The number is now at four and, the sources said, the full field could be announced as early as this week. The debate now likely will take place in November or December.

“The Democratic CNN/YouTube debate was a success, and we have equally high expectations for the Republican CNN/YouTube debate,” added a YouTube spokesman. “We remain confident that all of the Republican campaigns will participate.”

The Democratic showing did raise questions about whether the format”s informality undermined its integrity.

For example, one question was asked by someone posed as a snowman, while another was asked by a voter showcasing an automatic firearm he described as “my baby.”

Some of the campaigns have said the originally targeted September 17 date conflicted with their fundraising schedules. Ms. VanSickle was not able to confirm which campaigns have officially agreed to participate or when an official announcement might come.

But the campaign of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, which privately questioned the debate format, has made a number of public statements indicating he is open to participating. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appears less convinced after being the target of several YouTube videos questioning his credibility on issues of importance to social conservatives.

Former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin are on board.

Multiple sources close to the discussions say it was pressure from conservative bloggers, not scheduling conflicts, that made the reluctant Republican candidates reconsider.

Two weeks ago, a number of prominent conservative bloggers launched an effort called “Save the Debate” that generated what one of the campaigns referred to as a “full-court press,” from conservative activists.

“There was a tremendous outpouring of support from the coveted 18-to-35-year-old voters,” said Robert Bluey of the Heritage Foundation, who helped initiate the online petition. “It would be such a shame if Republicans missed this opportunity.”

In a letter to the abstaining campaigns, the “Save the Debate” organizers wrote:

“As Republicans, we believe this is a serious mistake. Every Democratic candidate eagerly accepted the opportunity to answer questions from the American people via YouTube, even Hillary Clinton, the most cautious and calculating of the bunch,” it said.

“Attend the YouTube debate, and you may get a tough question or two. Don’t attend, and millions of Americans will wonder if you were too afraid to answer questions from the Internet, just as Democrats were afraid to go on Fox News.”

The Democratic field of candidates, led by former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, boycotted a proposed debate that was to be aired and moderated by the Fox News Channel.

“I’m very optimistic for a debate that includes all of the candidates. That said, it’s trust but verify,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican blogger who spearheaded the petition and is a former consultant to the Giuliani campaign and online-campaign director for the Republican National Committee.

“But based on the body language and signals being sent from the campaigns, it would be very odd if they didn’t participate.”

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