CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- Democratic presidential candidates faced questions directly from voters on Monday in the first CNN/YouTube debate.
Democratic candidates answered questions ranging from Iraq to taxes to Al Gore.
The lights and cameras were focused on the eight candidates, but it was the personal, heartfelt and, at times, comical nature of the user questions that stole the spotlight.
Questions included one from a father who lost a son in Iraq and wondered if he would lose another, a gay couple asking why they shouldn't be allowed to marry and a woman stricken with breast cancer who asked if her chance of survival would be better if she had health insurance.
In all, 39 questions were asked from the 3,000 submissions YouTube said it received.
Most observers agreed that none of the candidates debating at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, particularly outshone their rivals, doing nothing to challenge Sen. Hillary Clinton's position as the Democratic race's front-runner. Watch the candidates judge the strengths and weaknesses of each other »
An average of 11 national polls taken in June put Clinton in the lead at 40 percent to Sen. Barack Obama's 25 percent and 14 percent for former Sen. John Edwards. The rest of the field was in single digits.
The video questions came in all forms -- people facing the camera straight-on, people in makeup, people with flash cards. There were the two men from Tennessee and their "Red State Update" asking if the candidates were hurt by all the attention given non-runner Al Gore as well as a man who sang about how much tax he paid. And then there was the talking snowman with a question about global warming.
Interspersed with the questions and answers were videos the campaigns had produced themselves.
Edwards' video took a swipe at Republicans, who had raised the issue of his spending $400 for haircuts, with a video that showed the haircuts of President Bush and embattled U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales morph into images from Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the tune of the song "Hair" from the musical of the same name.
One of the highlights came when a YouTuber asked the candidates to look to their left and say one thing about that person they liked and one thing they disliked.
Edwards said he liked Clinton's service to the country, as well as her husband's. But Edwards looked at the salmon-colored jacket Clinton wore and said jokingly, "But I don't know about that jacket." See telling quotes from each candidate »
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson noted that each one would make an excellent contribution to his future administration.
The debate continued online after the lights went down on the set as Web users weighed in on the candidates' performances and on the groundbreaking format.
Some said that the questions from YouTubers were as good or better than those of the media and phrased that the candidates had a tough time ducking them.
Others, though, said that the candidates dodged questions from YouTubers like they did those of the media.
Jordan Williams, a student at the University of Kansas, asked Clinton and Obama how they would address critics who charge that "either one is not authentically black enough, or the other is not satisfactorily feminine."
"Well, I couldn't run as anything other than a woman," Clinton replied, drawing laughs. "But, obviously, I'm not running because I'm a woman."
Obama, who is biracial, said, "You know, when I'm catching a cab in Manhattan -- in the past, I think I've given my credentials."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich narrowed the focus to Iraq, saying he voted against the war in Iraq -- which sets him apart from other candidates on the stage. He said he would never send Americans to fight in a war based on "a lie."
And he faulted his colleagues in Congress for allowing the war to continue, saying voters didn't vote Republicans out of control of Congress last fall just to get a Democratic version of the war.
Sen. Chris Dodd expressed frustration at how the Iraq war has colored opinions of the U.S. around the world.
"We've lost our moral leadership in the world," Dodd said. "No one listens to us when it comes to foreign policy."
Richardson tried to put distance between himself and his senatorial rivals on the stage, saying that all U.S. troops should be brought home from Iraq by the end of 2007 "with no residual forces."
"The time has come to bring the troops home. No politics. Get it done," he said.
That brought a retort from Sen. Joe Biden, who said a pullout of U.S. combat troops would take at least a year to complete and that, unless some U.S. forces remained in Iraq, all of the American civilians there would have to be evacuated as well.
"You better have helicopters ready to take those 3,000 civilians inside the Green Zone [in Baghdad]," he said. "You better make sure you have protection for them, or let them die."
Another question asked if the candidates would scrap or revise "No Child Left Behind."
Richardson and Biden said they would do away with it.
A gay female couple appeared on the screen next, asking if the candidates would allow them to be married.
Kucinich said yes; Dodd and Edwards said no but that they support civil unions for gay couples.
"The honest answer is I don't [support gay marriage]," said Edwards. "But I think it's wrong for me as the president of the United States to use my faith to deny anyone their rights."
Asked whether he would work for the minimum wage, which goes from $5.15 per hour to $5.85 on Tuesday, former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel responded: "Oh, yes, I would, but I would say that we don't need a minimum wage; we need a living wage. We don't have that in this country because of what they passed."
The debate kicked off with a series of questions from voters that moderator Anderson Cooper described as "not making the cut."
They included a questioner dressed in a Viking outfit, a 5-year-old posing a question about Social Security and a man in a chicken costume.
Though CNN vetted the questions, it was the first time that a journalist or a professional has not dictated what is asked of the candidates.
The debate was considered crucial for candidates wishing to stand out among their Democratic challengers, especially to distinguish themselves from Clinton.
South Carolina will hold one of the first primaries early next year, following on the heels of the Iowa precinct caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. For Democrats, the contest in the Palmetto State will be a key early test of strength among black voters.
In 2004, exit polls showed about 47 percent of primary voters were black, in a race Edwards, a South Carolina native, won.
Republican presidential candidates will face questions from YouTube users in a debate scheduled November 28 in Florida. E-mail to a friend
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