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SAN JOSE, Calif. - In a sign of just how far politics on the Web has come, Google’s YouTube will co-sponsor the first of six Democratic Party-sanctioned debates of the 2008 race.


The role of presidential debate sponsor, until this election season, has been reserved for mainstream television and print outlets and their Web sites. CNN is the television partner for the debate, scheduled for July 23 in Charleston, S.C.


But the dawn of the YouTube election, as the 2008 contest has been dubbed, in which candidates and Web users fuel political debate with videos, both serious and funny, is changing the definition of mainstream, especially as candidates and parties seek to engage young people.


“It’s really a new day,” Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University said of YouTube’s role. And, she added, it’s smart marketing - especially for organizers of an early debate - to seek out an audience, and online political activism is especially hot this election cycle.


“You go fishing where the fish are,” she said.


Despite YouTube’s use as a platform for videos that can be irreverent, embarrassing and problematic when they expose candidates’ flip-flops and foibles, Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney said the DNC expressly told networks and other potential sponsors that “we’re looking for creative, inventive ways to engage voters.”


The DNC announced six debates on Wednesday, one each month from July until December. (An earlier Democratic debate was held in April - also in South Carolina, an early primary state - and aired on MSNBC). The only California debate of the DNC-sanctioned series is scheduled for Dec. 10, in Los Angeles, and will be sponsored by CBS News.


The others are Aug. 19 in Des Moines, Iowa (ABC); Sept. 26, Hanover, N.H. (MSNBC/NBC); Oct. 30, Philadelphia (MSNBC/NBC); and Nov. 15, Las Vegas (CNN).


Few details on the format for the YouTube-CNN debate were released.


“The idea of using the technology of YouTube and marrying it with traditional television could be really interesting” such as giving viewers new ways to comment on the debate and follow-up and ask questions of the candidates, said Bob Boorstin, director of policy communications for Google in Washington, D.C.


Lest partisanship become an issue, Boorstin said Google and CNN are working with GOP candidates to arrange a similar debate. Unlike the DNC, the Republican National Committee is not organizing debates for its candidates.


Google and its CEO, Eric Schmidt, have had significant political ties to Democrats - most notably, former Vice President Al Gore is a senior adviser. Schmidt was a major fundraiser for Gore’s 2000 run and has given tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic party coffers.


According to federal elections data, Schmidt has not made any donations in the latest presidential fundraising cycle.


Boorstin said decisions on who will serve as the debate moderator and how questions will be selected will be left up to CNN and YouTube/Google staffers, not executives.


Google executives see promise in politics. Several have appeared at online political conferences touting the new possibilities of the Web for campaigning, including using Google for advertising.


Both the DNC and Boorstin said Schmidt’s previous Democratic party contributions did not have any influence on YouTube’s selection as a debate sponsor. But it does present a good opportunity for Google and the Democrats, said Hoover fellow Bill Whalen, a Republican.


“It puts a young brand on the Democrats and it’s critical to Democrats that they capture the youth vote,” he said. But he and others noted that much-publicized attempts over the past decade to attract what used to be known at “the MTV vote,” voters aged 18 to 35, have never reached expectations.


Said veteran media-watcher Ben Bagdikian: “It’s an experiment that will tell us how much political advantage there is to using the media that young voters are watching,” and whether come next year it will lead them to the polls.

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