Web Sites Aim To Expand Debate Arena

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Oct. 3 2000 3:00 AM

Web Sites Aim To Expand Debate Arena

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

During a year in which two major networks don't plan to nationally televise at least one of the three presidential debates and minor party candidates are struggling in the polls, the Internet may turn out to be a haven for unheard voices over the final month of the campaign. Two sites are giving minor-party candidates a chance to be heard side-by-side with George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, while several others are hoping to entice the candidates to answer questions from young voters.

Political video portal  Freedomchannel.com has invited Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan, Natural Law nominee John Hagelin, Libertarian nominee Harry Browne, and Constitution Party nominee Howard Phillips to submit videotaped answers to all questions posed to the major party nominees during the presidential debates. The candidates' responses will be posted on a grid along with clips of Bush and Gore, so users can quickly compare responses.

But neither Buchanan nor Nader, both of whom have complained loudly that they are being shut out of the televised showdowns sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, have accepted the invitation to be heard alongside Bush and Gore online.

Nader is also the only one of seven invited candidates—including Bush and Gore—to shun  Web, White & Blue's offer to participate in its online debate. Laura Jones, a Nader spokeswoman, said Friday that the campaign was still "weighing our options" about which online debate invitations it would accept. She would not say which criteria the campaign was using or when it might reach a decision whether to participate.

Web, White & Blue's "rolling cyber debate" began on Sunday, and is being carried online by the organization's 17 charter members, including washingtonpost.com. Candidates from six campaigns are scheduled to answer questions from the sites' users every Sunday through Friday until Election Day. They also have the opportunity to post an unedited campaign message Sundays through Thursdays.

site set up by students at Wake Forest University, the host location of the second presidential debate, hopes to entice young voters into the electoral process and perhaps funnel some of their questions directly to the candidates. Using a program built by the Dallas-based Opinioneering Corporation, visitors to the Wake Forest debate site can ask multiple-choice questions and vote on whether they like questions from other users.

Heath Bumgardner, a senior politics major from Durham, Maine, said the group thought the Internet would be a much better way to reach younger voters than traditional media. "We hope this exchange of information is a conduit for getting more young people involved," he said. If the traffic is high enough, Bumgardner said the group would send questions to the presidential candidates and ask for their responses.

Wake Forest University is also participating in an effort to gauge youth opinion that will provide instant feedback on reactions to the debates.  Speakout.com is partnering with Wake Forest, University of Massachusetts Boston, and  Youth Vote 2000 in an effort to entice several thousand people below the age of 30 to rate the debate minute by minute. While watching the debate, survey participants will log on to a special Web site where they can move a gauge to indicate the portions of the candidates' responses they like and don't like. Youth Vote 2000 debates director John Dervin said his organization is hoping to use the responses from the survey to fill a gap in information about the opinions of young potential voters.

Fox News Channel will also be using a broader sample of Speakout.com's users as an indication of how debate watchers of all ages rate the candidates' responses.

The Web site for the Commission on Presidential Debates allowed visitors to suggest questions for the moderators to ask the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The commission posted the suggestions, which are completely nonbinding, on its Web site Monday. It is also hosting pre- and post-debate discussion areas. Partnering with  ABCNews.com, the CPD and several of its partners hosted moderated discussions about several potential debate topics. Following the debates, the CPD will post to its site the responses it receives from several self-organized discussion groups that will watch the debates around the country.

Aside from Wake Forest, the other debate host locations—University of Massachusetts BostonCentre College, and  Washington University—are lighter on interactivity but provide a wealth of logistical information. The host sites post information about tickets, media credentials, protest permits, and class cancellations.

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