YouTube presidential debate breaks the rules

? Yes, this is still the YouTube you know and love: The guys from want the male Democratic candidates to take off their shirts for an abs contest.

The odds are CNN will not choose that video to air at Monday’s first-of-its-kind U.S. presidential debate in which candidates will answer questions submitted by YouTube users on video. But along with the wackiness, YouTube users are showing their serious side for a chance to have a voice in the presidential race. The GOP candidates get their turn in September.

The CNN-YouTube debate is being heralded for turning a new page in presidential politics, beginning to transform staid debates into an endeavor taken in the spirit of YouTube – technology-driven, a little offbeat and with voters at the controls.

More than 1,576 video questions had been submitted as of Thursday evening, representing a cross-section of issues and coming from as far away as Spain, Panama and Chad.

CNN editors, including Monday’s debate moderator, CNN host Anderson Cooper, will select as many as four dozen to air in the two-hour broadcast from Charleston, S.C. But the submissions, which must be 30 seconds or less, can be viewed at now.

Some are wacky, some are rants, but most are from people asking real-life questions.

Among them: a question on the crisis in Darfur, filmed from inside refugee camps, and one about health insurance, delivered by a 35-year-old woman with breast cancer.

Then there is the seven-second snippet of a black cat with a caption asking: “How can you protect my food in the future?”

Cat owner Brandon Mendolson, a 24-year-old grad student in New York, said he’s concerned for his six cats, including Molly, who appears in the video, after the recent recall of contaminated pet food. He doesn’t even plan to watch the debate but hopes that enough people will find it on YouTube and e-mail their representatives about the issue.

It’s uncertain how many, like Mendolson, will skip the debate, or if more viewers will tune into CNN for the novelty of it all. And many will measure the success of the debate by whether voters glean more about the candidates in this unconventional format.

But many political observers say it’s a worthwhile foray to shake up the political dialogue using popular video-sharing technology.

And not surprising for the digital age, there is a debate, mostly fueled in the blogosphere, over the debate itself.

On YouTube, users typically rate videos, giving more exposure to collective favorites. But for this debate, CNN will pare down the hundreds of submissions, not YouTube users, a violation of the spirit of YouTube, some charge.

CNN political director Sam Feist said the network wants the debate “to look and feel different” but still be serious, requiring some judiciousness.

Cognizant of the dangers of the anonymity of the Internet, especially for a reputable news organization, CNN is requiring all submissions aired to include the video makers’ names and hometowns.

The debate format “is more democratic than ever,” said Steve Grove, YouTube’s news and politics editor. “Politicians are hearing the hearts and minds of the American people in new ways.”

As submissions trickled in during the past three weeks, submissions have increased voluminously since CNN began heavily advertising the debate last week.

YouTube also has been encouraging users to take their video cameras and film questions in areas, such as nursing homes or community centers, from people who probably are not steeped in YouTube culture, let alone have a computer.

Peter Leyden, whose San Francisco-based New Politics Institute encourages progressive politicians to jump on new-media opportunities, said this first video-based debate “is more symbolic of the potential than actual performance.” People will also be watching to see if the candidates provide new insights or plod the same old ground.

“If they give the same answers as they would have to Wolf Blitzer or Brian Williams, it may be less revolutionary than we thought,” said CNN’s Feist.