WASHINGTON In 2004, YouTube didn't exist. Three years later, politicians have learned to fear and revere the video-sharing Web site that has become a vital part of the campaign for the 2008 U.S. presidential election.
From rapid dissemination of political blunders, often with funny tunes, to a new wave of music videos featuring scantily clad women singing the praises of their presidential favorites, YouTube.com has sparked a new interest in politics.
More than 2.5 million people have viewed "I've Got a Crush...On Obama" about Democratic Sen. Barack Obama since it was posted last month. A rebuttal video of women fighting over Obama and leading Republican contender Rudy Giuliani has been watched more than 500,000 times in four days.
While much on YouTube is skewed to a U.S. audience, the company -- bought by Web search leader Google Inc. last year for $1.65 billion -- now has local sites reflecting that more than half of viewers are outside the United States.
Many candidates vying for their party's nomination to run for president have embraced the technological changes, holding polls via YouTube, asking for campaign input and making announcements on the site.
"In the past, the campaigns sort of stuck their toe into technology and innovation -- it was a small detail of what was going on," said Phil Noble, founder of PoliticsOnline.
"The difference in this election is that technology has become fundamental. Every campaign has figured out ways to use YouTube all the time."
It's not just the candidates. YouTube members are getting in too, with thousands of people uploading video questions for upcoming CNN/YouTube debates.
By Friday midday, more than 1,700 videos had been put on YouTube's site for Monday's debate among Democratic candidates (here). The Republican debate will be on September 17.
Some 25 to 30 of the questions will be picked by a political team at CNN for the two-hour debate. Follow-up questions may also be asked by moderator Anderson Cooper.
Questions are about health care, Social Security, global warming and U.S. foreign policy. Some are serious, others are not. One man played a guitar and sang a song about whom the candidates would choose as running mates for vice president.
Will Wrigley, a 17-year-old who will turn 18 in time to vote in November 2008, asked the candidates for their views on stem cell research.
"I just decided I wanted to have one in," he said by e-mail.
The issue was important, Wrigley added, because it could "improve the health of the people in this nation and around the world."
Kim, a 36-year-old breast cancer patient from suburban New York, took off her wig while saying her chances for survival were not as good as they could have been because she -- like tens of millions of Americans -- had no health insurance.
"What would you as president do to make low-cost or free preventative medicine available for everyone in this country?" she asked.
CNN political director Sam Feist said the network decided to hold a YouTube debate in part to highlight the enormous impact the Internet has on politics.
"Clearly the YouTube phenomenon is the perfect opportunity to merge new media and old media in a presidential debate," he said, adding that the unpredictable nature of the questions will make it harder for candidates to prepare.
Feist said the questions were asked by a diverse group of people -- of all ages and from across the country and several foreign nations. He said he was surprised by the quality of the questions and that there were not more about the Iraq war.
Noble, who feels it is too early to call this a "YouTube election," said it will be fun to see even more innovation.
"What we're doing is putting the most powerful communications tools in the hands of millions of people all at one time and saying 'Tell us what you think about politics'."