With just three days to go before Super Tuesday, when 23 states hold their presidential-nomination primaries or caucuses, Democrats and Republicans participated in the same forum Saturday night, MTV/MySpace's "Closing Arguments: A Presidential Super Dialogue." Democratic rivals Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republican candidates Congressman Ron Paul and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee beamed in to take live questions and make their final pitches to an MTV audience at the station's Times Square studio. (Invitations were also extended to Republican front-runners Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, but they were unable to participate.)
The series, which has hosted events with McCain and Obama, as well as former Senator John Edwards, was a chance for the candidates to reach the pivotal youth voting bloc, which has been turning out in record numbers so far this year and is expected to do so for November's general election.
And those voters hit the candidates with hard questions, on everything from religion to relations with China, gay marriage, what they would do about the rising cost of college tuition, how they would have reacted following the terrorist attacks of September 11 and why young voters should listen to what they have to say.
First up Saturday night was Huckabee, appearing live from Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. He was immediately hit with a question from the audience about how he would change the partisan bickering in Washington, D.C. Huckabee explained that "real change is about understanding that government has to work for us, not the other way around."
He also hit upon a number of his stump-speech highlights, including fixing the country's infrastructure of bridges and roads and changing the tax structure and scrapping the Internal Revenue Service in favor of his FairTax system, which he said would help stimulate the economy, rather than penalize people for hard work. And, in a twist no other candidate seems likely to offer, he said: "You pay at the point of consumption, so you don't pay tax until you buy something at the retail level that is new, and that's when you pay the tax. It ends the underground economy, so drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, illegals, gamblers, everybody pays in taxes — not just the poor, dumb saps who fill out the tax returns and do it honestly every year."
As he has in most of the previous debates, Huckabee — a former Baptist minister who has lost steam since his surprise primary-season opening win in the Iowa caucus on January 3 — was asked about how his faith might impact his presidency, and he was adamant that he's not the one who brings it up so frequently. What frustrates him, he said, is that no one focuses on his 10 years as governor and that no other candidate is asked the kind of questions he is. "What I'd like to be talking about is education and health care and protecting America," he said.
After an Associated Press reporter asked him how he felt about the fact that a recent poll said one in four young voters don't know enough about him to have an opinion on him, and if he could survive past Tuesday with that kind of name recognition, Huckabee said he's hanging in for the long haul. "Until someone gets 1,191 delegates, they're not the nominee," he said, adding that people laughed at him a year ago for being in the race, but that he is staying in because he feels adamant that someone needs to speak for the people who "drive trucks and move bags" and change the Republican Party from being that of the moneyed Wall Street elite and not the average worker.
Like McCain during his forum, Huckabee, 52, stressed that young voters should understand that the decisions he would make as president would be not for him, but for 20-year-olds who will be affected by them. "My decisions will only affect me for the next 35 years, then I disappear, I'm gone," he said.
In his closing argument, Huckabee joked that young voters should choose him because he has both the "Colbert bump" and is "Chuck Norris approved." But the real reason, he said, was because he brings more experience at actually running a government than any of the other candidates, Republican or Democrat. "When you're a governor, you're actually running a microcosm of the federal government," he said, adding that he balanced budgets, built roads and improved schools. However, by the end of his 25 minutes, moderator and WashingtonPost.com political reporter Chris Cillizza said that 54 percent of respondents said they would definitely be voting for someone else.
In keeping with the maverick style that has earned him a vocal, furiously fundraising group of supporters, Congressman Ron Paul stated it simply: "I want to be president [not] because I want to run your life, I don't even know how to run your life. ... Likewise, I don't want to run the economy ... What I want to restore is freedom and a sound currency."
Whether the question was about the U.S. response to the genocide in Rwanda, the rising cost of birth control or how he would have handled the September 11 attacks, Paul — who has polled far behind the other Republican candidates — often came back to the same issue: that the U.S should stay out of undeclared wars and stop printing dollars as if there were an endless supply of money at our disposal.
On the September 11 question, Paul said he would have gone after terrorist leader Osama bin Laden more aggressively and not focused on "nation building" in Afghanistan and, in an answer none of the other candidates are likely to offer, he said he would have revived the idea of "marque and reprisal," a centuries-old rule used to go after pirates or others with harmful intent against the country.
In answer to a question about why he has drawn such strong support from youth voters who aren't necessarily going for his more mainstream conservative rivals, Paul said it's not because the Democrats are offering such great ideas, but because the Republican Party deserves to be punished for the undeclared war in Iraq and for running up record deficits. "What you need to do is come and look at some of the rallies and ... talk to some of the young people who rally to us," he said. "Guess what I offer them? Freedom: Freedom to live their lives as they choose, freedom to spend their money as they choose and freedom to get out from under the heavy hand of government."
In the end, Cillizza said Paul's polling showed that 53 percent of online forum participants — which he noted probably included a healthy portion of Paul's active online supporters — said the maverick congressman has their vote.
The third candidate to speak was repeat participant Barack Obama, who beamed in from a campaign rally in Minneapolis. Already familiar with the format, Obama took a range of questions, from how his multicultural background might help his foreign policy to whether there would be another draft under his presidency, and whether or not he supports gay marriage.
"Part of the skill I think I bring to the presidency is being able to bring people together and see through the eyes of other people, to find what we have in common as people," he said. He offered as examples the fact that his grandmother lived in a poor African village ravaged by HIV, with little running water or electricity, and that he can speak with the knowledge of someone who knows what those countries are going through. He also said he could meet with Muslim leaders and bridge the divide as someone who spent time as a child living in a Muslim country (Indonesia).
For much of the campaign, Obama has sought to differentiate himself from Clinton by stressing that he was against the Iraq war from day one and, when asked if he would institute a draft as president, he once again used the occasion to put distance between himself and his chief rival. "I don't think we need a draft," said Obama. "What we need is a president who will deploy our military wisely. Going into Iraq was unwise and that's why I opposed that war from the start."
When asked why undecided voters concerned about foreign policy should vote for him over Clinton, Obama again stressed his opposition on the Iraq war and added that he "anticipated the problems" the U.S. has had in Pakistan and was against supporting its president, Pervez Musharraf.
Asked how he could help minority students gain options for jobs outside the military, Obama said he would offer a $4,000 tuition credit so students are not loaded up with debt and can work their credit off doing national service at underserved schools and hospitals or veterans' homes.
On gay marriage, Obama said that while he was against legalizing it, he was in favor of civil unions that provide the same rights at federal levels for same-sex couples as those available to heterosexual ones.
Answering the most pointed question that came his way — regarding his comments that his presidency would be a path to the future versus the past (i.e. Clinton) — and why having the first woman president was not as much a path to the future as electing the first black president, Obama said it all comes down to democracy. "The future is more than just gender or race," he said. "If it was just race, I would not have to answer questions, I could just show up! The future I refer to is a future where our government and our democracy is led by the voices of the American people and not special interests and lobbyists in Washington."
And, hitting upon the formula that has helped him win some early contests and finish closely behind Clinton in others, Obama also extended his hand to not just Democrats, but all voters. "I think the future is also getting past some of the divisions we've become so obsessed with, whether it's racial divisions [or] party divisions," he explained. "I think that there are Democrats, independents and Republicans who are tired of the incompetence and frustrated with the policies that are so skewed to the wealthy in the Bush administration. I want to bring all people together to see if we can work together to actually deliver on a health care plan that works for all Americans."
An online participant asked how Obama has dealt with the persistent e-mail attacks that contain incorrect information about him being a Muslim, and rumors that he does not acknowledge the American flag. "I have never been a practicing Muslim ... I'm a member of the same Christian church where I've been for 20 years," he explained. "And I've been pledging allegiance to the flag since I was 3 years old." He decried the e-mails as typical political dirty tricks and said they were not only an insult to his faith but to those of the Islamic faith as well.
In his closing argument, Obama said he feels he should get the youth vote because it is young Americans who will build the bridge to the future he talks about so often. "Change in America has always started with the young," he said. "They're not tied up with the world as it is; they imagine the world as it might be. If young people are ready for change, then we can tell the lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. We can begin a process of health care for all Americans, investing in education so every child can actually learn. That's a track record of accomplishment that I bring to this race. Bringing people together, pushing against the special interests, reducing the power of lobbyists and most importantly, being straight with you."
After a slight delay in getting to her spot at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Clinton made her case for the first time to the MTV/MySpace audience. The first question posed to the former first lady was about the spiraling costs of higher education, a topic she said is near and dear to her heart. "This is one of the most important issues to me, because we are literally slamming the door of college in the face of so many young people," said Clinton, who explained that when she was in college she was able to borrow money at a 3 or 4 percent interest (versus rates now that can spiral up to 18 percent) and that she was able to pay it back contingent on her income after school.
Among her proposals are more tax credits for families to make college more affordable, a way for students to earn up to $10,000 a year doing national service to help defer college costs, and post-graduation public-service programs to help pay off those loans. Unfortunately for Clinton, online polling showed that 52 percent of participants were "just not buying" her answers and 11 percent were "skeptical, but listening."
After several weeks of sometimes-vicious rhetoric between the Obama and Clinton camps, the candidates cooled their overheated back-and-forth during a debate this week, and one audience member asked Clinton what her presidency would symbolize compared to Obama's. "What was so great about the debate the other night is that the two of us on that stage together represent such a sea change in America," she said with a smile. "When I was your age, I'm not sure that I would have dared hope that we could have had Senator Obama and myself vying for the Democratic nomination for the toughest job in the world. But there we were. So whichever of us gets the nomination, we are making history."
The real question, she said, was which of them could best govern to change a country engaged in two wars and sliding into recession, with 47 million uninsured citizens, rising college costs and also facing an energy crisis and the effects of global warming. "I believe that I've had 35 years making change on behalf of women and children, human rights, civil rights, economic justice," she said, hitting the frequent campaign theme that she has decades of concrete experience versus the mantle of hope and a changing-of-the-guard that Obama has been talking about.
"I've been a real fighter for the kinds of changes that would give people the opportunities to make the most of their own lives ... and I think I bring the strength and the experience to make the changes that our country so desperately needs to have."
Clinton dismissed a question about her electability posed via e-mail to MTV.com, in which a user asked, given how badly the Republican candidates want to run against her because they think they can beat her, why should people vote for the senator? Chalking it up to a "disinformation campaign" by Republicans, Clinton said she's beaten her rivals twice in contested elections. "I've been withstanding their incoming fire for 16 years now and, much to their dismay, I'm still standing and still thriving." Most importantly, she added, unlike Obama, she understands what it takes to go up against Republicans and has had her history so thoroughly picked over that most voters have already "factored into their thinking what they know about me." Despite all that, she said, in every poll she's still winning and "very, very competitive" with any of the potential Republican candidates remaining.
As he did Saturday night, Obama has made much of Clinton's vote in favor of using force in Iraq, and one online questioner asked the New York senator why it's so hard for her to admit that her voting in favor of going to war was wrong. "I have said many times that I cast a vote based on my assessment of the threats that were posed, my understanding of how we were going to deal with those threats by putting inspectors into Iraq, making sure we had the opportunity to determine what, if any, weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein still had," she said. Had President Bush done what he said he was going to do — what Clinton said she and other Democrats expected him to do — "then this would be very different to people, because we would have achieved the goal of determining what Saddam Hussein had and essentially disarming him."
That, she said, was not what happened, and while Clinton said she strenuously objected at the time to what she termed a "pre-emptive war," Bush pushed ahead. Maintaining her resolve on the issue, Clinton said that on the campaign trail, she doesn't hear people say they're worried about what happened in 2002 as much as what will happen next, and she said she has a thorough plan on how the U.S. will withdraw from Iraq, beginning with the first troops coming out within 60 days of her inauguration.
In her closing argument, Clinton reiterated her belief that her 35 years of experience prove she can help people, and that her record stands for itself. And, repeating one of her central campaign themes when attempting to draw a distinction between herself and Obama, she added, "Ultimately, there are two questions to ask yourself: Who do you believe would be the best president on day one, to deal with all the problems we know are waiting and the ones we cannot even predict right now?"
And, if you're a Democrat, she asked, "Who do you think has the best chance of being able to withstand whatever the Republicans send our way and lead us to victory in November? I believe that I have the experience we need to make the changes we want in America, and every election is about the future. Some people just think about it in terms of an election, but I think about it in terms of the next generation."
As in previous dialogues, each candidate was given the chance to speak with the audience and to address questions posed by online viewers via MySpaceIM and ChooseOrLose.com as well as from the live, college-age audience in MTV's Times Square studio. Hosted by MTV News correspondents Sway Calloway and Gideon Yago, the forum also featured live polling results and IM questions posed by Cillizza. It once again made use of a polling tool powered by Flektor that enables online viewers to indicate their approval or disapproval of candidates' responses throughout the course of the event, guiding the direction of the forum by giving the candidates real-time feedback.
The Dialogue was one of the last times the candidates will get in front of a national audience before Super Tuesday, when, in a first, the day's events will be closely watched and reported on by MTV's "Choose or Lose" army of Street Team '08 volunteers. They will cover the youth vote using the first-ever live mobile-to-Web broadcasts — from polling stations, caucuses, candidate rallies and everywhere young voters congregate on Tuesday, delivering real-time, on-the-spot reports streamed live all day from correspondents' video-equipped mobile phones to MTVNews.com and ChooseOrLose.com.
[This story was originally published on 2.2.08 at 8:47 p.m. ET]
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