By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington
When the Democratic contenders for the White House take to the stage in South Carolina for the latest presidential debate, a whole new audience may be watching.
For the first time, all the questions the candidates face will have been submitted directly by the American public using video clips on the internet.
The result of a link-up between news network CNN and video-sharing website YouTube, the format is being hailed as a transformational moment in the history of presidential debates.
Although CNN will choose which few dozen of the 30-second-long questions air of the more than 1,500 submitted so far, never have voters had such direct input into exactly what their candidates for the 2008 election are asked.
Analysts suggest the online buzz around the event may attract a younger, more diverse audience and better reflect the real-life concerns of Americans.
One striking example comes from a woman called Kim. Speaking into a webcam, she says: "I'm 36 years old and hope to be a future cancer survivor from Long Island. Like millions of Americans I've gone for years without health insurance.
"What would you, as president, do to make low-cost or free preventative medicine available for everybody in the country?"
A few seconds into the clip, she reaches up to lift off the wig that covers her bald head, the result of chemotherapy.
In another video, a young man stands by his clapped-out car and asks what the candidates will do to make alternative-fuel vehicles more affordable. Other questions range from the Iraq war to the Darfur conflict, pet food safety, extraterrestrials and immigration.
While some are high-production numbers with visual effects, others are grainy but oddly intimate clips filmed on a webcam or digital camera. Some, of course, are off-the-wall or just plain silly.
YouTube's role in the debate is being seen as a reflection of the newly dominant role that the internet, particularly through online video, is playing in the 2008 campaign.
The site's news and politics editor Steve Grove has described the event as "the most democratic debate ever".
Jeff Jarvis, a media professor who blogs at Prezvid.com, a site monitoring candidates' use of video on the web, says whether that proves true will rely in part on the questions CNN picks - but that the potential is there.
"It could be a considerable moment of change in the American elections because this really gives the people a voice that they haven't had before," he said.
"Before, reporters were the ones that asked the questions in our absence - well, we are not absent any more and I think that could have a huge impact."
Hearing individuals ask questions personally important to them - like one video in which two women ask if they would be allowed to marry each other - is also much more powerful than when reporters cover the same ground, he says.
But, he adds: "I think working with YouTube is brilliant. But I wish they would let us, the voters, choose some of the questions."
Old and new
A number of observers have pointed out that letting YouTube users pick the questions would be the logical next step in democratising the process - and truer to the way that YouTube itself works.
But Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, a think-tank which encourages progressive politicians to make use of new media opportunities, sees CNN's filter on the questions as a good "first step".
"It's really the meeting of the old media and the new media on equal terms, melding the best of both to try out something really new - so that's a big deal," he said.
He sees the new approach as a way to engage the "average American" in a much more participatory politics, as well as connecting with a younger generation that has grown up with the internet.
"You are going to involve them because it's tapping into a way that excites and energises them, which is a good thing," he said.
As for the candidates, the debate presents new challenges, with the range and unpredictability of voters' questions making it harder to prepare set piece answers.
However, some among them have made efforts to embrace the YouTube dynamic.
The campaign for Senator Joseph Biden has produced a how-to video instructing people on filming and uploading their own clip using a scripted question on the Iraq war.
John Edwards is planning a follow-on event
"If all of you record the same question and upload it to YouTube for the debate, then CNN and YouTube won't be able to ignore the question and the candidates won't be able to duck the question," the video says.
Meanwhile, Senator John Edwards is planning to hold a half-hour live webcast after the debate to allow people to ask him even more questions.
So far as Mr Leyden is concerned, there is no going back to the staid, anchor-led televised debates of the past 40 years.
"What the YouTube format offers is potentially submissions that are more emotionally compelling than just someone standing up in the audience and asking a question.
"There's a drama, there's an impact that is different."
The Republican contenders for the 2008 nomination will take their turn to answer voters' video questions on 17 September in Florida.