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Republicans Should Skip the YouTube Debate

By Reid Wilson

Republican hesitancy to a YouTube debate does not stem from the party's unwillingness to engage the internet community, nor does it come from any perceived ignorance of the community's power and import.

In fact, Republicans are taking the internet quite seriously. The Hotline reports that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has dumped more than $1.4 million into his burgeoning online campaign, while former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has spent nearly $800,000 and Senator John McCain has ponied up about $650,000. Spending that much money on internet ads, list-building and outreach is indicative of a field very interested in harnessing the power of the conservative online community.

Instead, Republicans' hesitancy to participate in the YouTube debate comes from having watched the Democratic YouTube debate. During the first try, Democrats had to answer difficult questions. Senator Hillary Clinton was asked if she was a liberal. Joe Biden and John Edwards had to reveal their choice for a Republican running mate. Edwards and Barack Obama had to answer a question about reparations for slavery. Questions on gay marriage, whether they sent their kids to public or private school and if they've talked to their children about sex education only made things more uncomfortable.

The Democratic debate was great television. No candidate stumbled too badly, though there were plenty of opportunities to do so, and it provided the first real clash between Obama and Clinton.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of Rudy Giuliani's campaign, or Mitt Romney's campaign. Some of the questions Democrats were asked were not anything a consultant could expect, and that leads to danger. If you want your candidate to stay on message, why would you allow them to face questions the likes of which you are unable to predict? And why allow a possible future president of the United States to answer a question from a snowman?

Finally, there's the frontrunner factor. Romney and Giuliani are acting like frontrunners in what is becoming an increasingly aggressive field. Both have substantial weaknesses, and both face questions about their records and their past. With millions in the bank and strong organizations in key states, neither gains anything by standing next to Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback or Tom Tancredo, all of whom have begun throwing bombs at other candidates in hopes of relieving them of their poll leads.

In a Senate or House race, the incumbent usually tries to avoid debates. Stay in front, the reasoning goes, by not permitting the opponent the free press of a debate. One can recognize when an incumbent is in trouble: It's when they start calling for more debates, as Senator Rick Santorum did against Bob Casey, who crushed the incumbent in 2006.

The Republican YouTube debate is coming at exactly the wrong time: It happens second, after the Democrats faced snowmen and armed men, leading to unpredictability. And it happens when the field is solidifying enough that more than just the mainstream media is considering Romney, Giuliani and Fred Thompson frontrunners.

The Republican answer to the YouTube debate has nothing to do with the internet, and everything to do with limiting future debates to limit future risk.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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