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A wide open forum for political debate

By now, we've gotten accustomed to hearing from presidential candidates' surrogates who make the rounds on the talking-head television circuit, taking questions from a host or sparring with a representative from the opposing camp.

Well, the Internet has thrown its doors wide open as a forum for the campaigns to engage each other in debate.

Opposing Views, a very young startup devoted to bringing experts who disagree together in debate on high-profile issues, entered the party today. The site, born only in late May with a modest $1.25 million in Series A financing, has pitted economic advisers from the McCain and Obama camp in a debate "Who has the best plan for America's economy?"

The format is accessible enough -- the debate topic's page displays one column of posts by each surrogate. There's not a lot of back and forth, and a lot of the talking points are (predictably) taken from the policy sections of the candidates' Web sites, but it's a neat idea.

The sparring that does take place comes in the form of objections -- when one participant takes issue with his opponent's comment, he can flag that post with an objection and register the complaint.

Opposing Views launched with experts to weigh in on more than 100 topics, so on the site you might find a debate on the death penalty (district attorney vs. Amnesty International), the existence of God (a rabbi vs. the group American Atheists) or global warming (Sierra Club vs. National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank).

The debate-by-proxy on Opposing Views picks up on the spirit of a recent effort by microblogging site Twitter, which hosted its own debate between the candidates' representatives in June.

In the political arena, the CNN/YouTube debates deserve the credit for getting a lot of this going. Even in the familiar format of each candidate standing at a podium answering questions in an allotted period of time, the participatory feeling of bringing candidates closer to the voters was significant. Sure that interaction was heavier on the symbolism than the substance, and the answers tended to glide along talking points, but still -- it was a milestone of sorts, if for nothing else than for the legitimacy the debates conferred on YouTube.

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