(CNN) -- Huddled around a table for hours, a handful of top journalists at CNN's political unit has been poring over YouTube videos by the thousands.
The Republican hopefuls will face off Wednesday in the CNN/YouTube debate.
It's a laborious process, but it's necessary to ensure the best questions make the cut for the CNN/YouTube debate between Republican presidential hopefuls in St. Petersburg, Florida, which will take place Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.
"The questions are funny. Some of them are striking. Some of them are sad. They are incredibly meaningful," said Sam Feist, CNN's political director. "You watch hundreds of these questions and you really get a sense of what's on people's minds."
The CNN producers have viewed more than 3,500 video submissions from people around the world. They'll continue sifting through more, through the submission deadline of November 25, right up to the debate. Only about 40 will pass muster. Watch some of the questions sent in so far »
It's only the second time such a debate has taken place -- Democratic candidates duked it out in a similar format this past summer. That debate christened YouTube as a venue for prodding politicians and a way to get the public involved.
While the GOP debate will also face a YouTube audience, don't expect to hear the same questions.
"This debate is to let Republican voters pick from among their eight candidates," said David Bohrman, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president for CNN. "We are trying to focus mostly on questions where there are differences among these candidates."
The White House hopefuls -- accustomed to the political tradition of stump speeches followed by queries from journalists -- have no idea exactly what to expect.
"There is some sense of the unknown and so they're going to be a little bit out of their normal comfort zone, which is a good thing," Bohrman said.
Each of the eight GOP hopefuls will answer to real people displayed on a 25-foot screen (or their animated creations, as witnessed in the Democratic debate). The candidates will have to deal with the person asking the question as if that person were in the room.
"They really need to relate to these as people because they are very human. They are somebody somewhere who's taken the time to submit these questions," Bohrman said.
And some of those submitters will be in the room -- creators of some of the most compelling questions will be flown to St. Petersburg to watch the debate in person and offer reactions afterward.
The user-generated format marks a major step toward involving people in the process of selecting a nominee. It's also changed the way people view presidential debates.
Unless someone happened to be in an Iowa farmhouse or a New Hampshire coffee shop, having an impact on the nominating process was "impenetrable" to outsiders Bohrman said, referring to the first two states to hold caucuses or a primary.
That's no longer the case because questions asked during the Democratic CNN/YouTube debate continue to resonate on the campaign trail, according to Feist.
"We've really begun to find a way for people around the country and even around the world to play a significant role in the process. There's no going back from this. It may not look like this in 2012, but I think never again will there be no participation from the public," Bohrman said.
So will any stars be born during this week's debate, like when Billiam the Snowman made a guest appearance during the Democratic debate? Will Jackie Broyles and Dunlap be back with the Red State update?
CNN's political unit is keeping the questions a secret, but those selecting them say viewers should be prepared for presentations that are funny, questions that are poignant and a format that is unprecedented for the GOP.
"I'm not going to give you any hints about what sorts of questions we're going to pick or we're not going to pick," Feist said.
"There are plenty of animated figures out there, there are certainly some funny questions, but more importantly, there are hundreds, if not thousands of really, really good, solid questions from real people on real issues." E-mail to a friend
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