Presidential candidates to debate over Internet

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NEW YORK -- Yahoo!, the Huffington Post and Web magazine Slate will engineer two presidential debates conducted online -- apparently the first of their kind -- that will feature candidates participating from separate locations with a real-time connection to voters over the Internet.

PBS host Charlie Rose has signed on to moderate the debates, and invitations have gone out to the announced candidates in both parties. The Democratic debate will occur after Labor Day, with the GOP edition at a later date.

"It will help reach out to a lot of people who are not engaged in the political process," said Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, whose idea sparked the effort. "There are many more people tuned into the campaign earlier than ever before, and we're going where so many of those people live -- online."

The 90-minute online debates will be remarkable in that they will be the first in the history of presidential politics where the candidates and the moderator won't be in the same room -- or even the same state. Rose will be in one location, hooked to a video camera, while a Yahoo! crew will be at each of the candidates' locations with cameras to connect them.

"They can talk to each other and have a real conversation and all see each other and engage each other's responses," Slate editor Jacob Weisberg said. "Although they won't be in the same room, it will be a real conversation."

Rose will receive e-mail questions and pose them to the candidates, said Cyrus Krohn, director of Yahoo!'s election strategy. The debate also will have other interactive components and social-media platforms surrounding it on Slate, the Huffington Post and Yahoo!

In January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Huffington raised the idea of an online debate in view of the fact that presidential candidates are doing more online advertising, online fund-raising and even announcing their candidacies online.

"This seemed like the next logical step, to have an exclusive online debate," she said.

Weisberg approached her during the forum and said he'd be interested in helping her; they discussed it with Rose at a party. Yahoo! was enlisted soon afterward; the company is developing the technology.

"It seems like a great way to combine the best of traditional media with Charlie and his great ability to question and bring out his subjects and the best of online media, partnering with Yahoo! and Slate -- online pioneers," Huffington said. "And most important, bringing in the people themselves, in a much more engaged way, to solicit questions through Facebook, Yahoo!, YouTube and MySpace."

It will be the most elaborate application of a Yahoo! project that last year saw former CNN anchor Judy Woodruff host "Talk to Power," a multimedia Q&A session that featured politicians including Sens. McCain, Edward Kennedy and Patty Murray.

Democratic National Committee chief Howard Dean has agreed to open the Democratic debate, which Weisberg takes to mean that it's likely that most if not all the candidates will participate. The requests for debates have been so heavy that Dean has been appointed arbiter to decide who will get to sponsor the debates and limit them to one a month.

Meanwhile, the first regular debate of the 2008 presidential election cycle will be at 7 p.m. EDT Thursday with the Democratic candidates. MSNBC and MSNBC.com will cover the debate, moderated by "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C.

On May 3, "Hardball" host Chris Matthews will moderate the first debate with the Republican contenders at 8 p.m. EDT from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

The South Carolina Democratic Party's debate will feature Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. Confirmed for the GOP debate are John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Sam Brownback, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo and Tommy Thompson.

On both days, the network plans blanket coverage up to and after the debates. Many of MSNBC's personalities will be involved, including Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson.
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