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ALEX COHEN, host:

It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

After some initial reluctance, the Republican presidential contenders make the leap to YouTube tonight. They'll be on stage in St. Petersburg, Florida for a debate co-sponsored by CNN and YouTube.

COHEN: The Democrats had their YouTube debate back in July. Maybe you remember some of those quirky online videos like that talking snowman who asked about global warming.

NPR's Robert Smith has been glued to YouTube, looking at the submissions for tonight.

BRAND: Robert, how do the Republican questions compare?

ROBERT SMITH: Well, there's a lot more of them. There's about 5,000 user-submitted questions as opposed to the around 3,000 for the Democrats. And I think people caught on a lot more, so we're seeing a lot more of the really goofy people dressed up in costumes. There's a devil, a zombie, a ninja, of course. We get UFO nuts, evangelists. There's a lot of presidents. You get Lincoln and Washington, Ben Franklin, Mr. Potato Head. So in that sense...

BRAND: President Potato Head?

SMITH: President Potato Head. Mr. Potato Head is talking about how the candidates can help the poor. The weird thing is that there's not all that many Republicans, or conservatives, I should say, asking questions. As you look at the questions, most of them seem to come from a liberal point-of-view and are those kind of tough questions a Democrat would ask a Republican.

BRAND: So you can see why originally the Republican candidates were kind of reluctant to do this.

SMITH: Well, you know, originally I mean Mitt Romney had said that it wasn't dignified to take questions from a talking snowman. And you know, a lot of conservatives online - and there are conservative bloggers online - started a campaign to say, no, no, no, the Republicans have to step up, the Republicans have to make their stand in cyberspace. And so all of the candidates have now signed on to this debate. And much to Mitt's surprise, the snowman is back. Here, I'll play a little bit of him.

Unidentified Man #1: (As Snowman) You've made it clear you don't believe in human-caused global warming. Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting against global warming. Does this mean you don't believe in peace?

SMITH: So I don't know if that one will be chosen. It's a little bit of a loaded question.

BRAND: Yeah. Is that a real person dressed up as a snowman or an animated snowman?

SMITH: It is an animated snowman and I guess a real person doing that little tiny snowman voice. I didn't know what snowmen sounded like until now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Robert, that's a pretty out-there clip, I guess. What are some of the others that caught your eye?

SMITH: Well, we'll stay with the out-there theme because those really are the most fun. My favorite one was the ghost of Richard Nixon.

Unidentified Man #2: (As Ghost of Richard Nixon): I am the ghost of Richard Nixon and my question is, are there any limits to a president's claim of executive privilege in withholding information and testimony to the Congress.

SMITH: Another one you'll not likely to see. I don't think they'll be taking the name of Richard Nixon in vain at the Republican debate. But you know, some of the joke questions actually do make it on. There were these two guys who do this comedy routine called Red State Update and they actually appeared in the Democratic debate as sort of a comedy moment. And here's their question from this year. I'm not sure if this is going to make it either.

Unidentified Man #3: Which one of you's the most like Ronald Reagan?

Unidentified Man #4: Oh, hell. Don't all raise your hands at once. This is awkward. Come on, all of you. Put your hands down. Giuliani, listen. Starring with a monkey is not the same thing as wearing a dress.

Unidentified Man #3: That's right. Clint Eastwood starred with a monkey.

Unidentified Man #4: Never catch him in a dress.

Unidentified Man #3: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: That's pretty funny. Who chooses which questions get on?

SMITH: Well, there are a team of producers at CNN who choose the questions. And this is a big subject of debate on the Web, because people who truly believe in sort of this citizen democracy say people should vote to see which questions are the best. But you know, CNN is an old-school network, running an old-school debate. So although the questions maybe different, although they're submitted by users, they're still chosen by the same people who choose questions for any other debate.

BRAND: Robert, were there any serious questions?

SMITH: Oh, yeah. There were a lot of serious questions. And that's really the strength of this format, which is if someone is asking about the environment, they can do it from a forest, or about healthcare, they can do it from a hospital bed. So there are some conservatives on there asking cheeky questions too.

BRAND: Do you think that this debate is going to be important in terms of the election? Will people look at this closely and say, well, this is how these candidates are going to connect or not connect with a vast online audience?

SMITH: Well, I think that that's the hard thing about a debate like this, that you have to look at the screen. You have to actually listen to the question and you have to respond in a human way to the person's question, and you know, maybe use a little bit of a sense of humor and be quick on your feet. Those are the sort of things that they're testing in this debate; not necessarily policies but sort of an ability to go with the flow. That's what comes out in a debate like this.

BRAND: NPR's Robert Smith in New York. Thanks, Robert.

SMITH: You're welcome.

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