NEW YORK — White House candidates once looked to presidential debates for a chance to shine. Now the hopefuls play it safe as they try to avoid the kind of televised stumble that could fatally undermine their chances.
That's a dreaded YouTube moment — a gaffe or flub that immediately goes viral online.
Ask Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose struggle in one debate to name the third of three federal agencies he would eliminate became the "oops" moment of the 2012 campaign. Or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose campaign collapsed after he ducked the chance to confront rival Mitt Romney in a debate over his push for a health care mandate in Massachusetts. Or Herman Cain, whose "Princess Nancy" comment about former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came just as he was battling decade-old allegations of sexual harassment.
To be sure, debates have produced plenty of cringe-inducing moments over the years. Michael Dukakis had a nonchalant response to a hypothetical question about his wife being raped and murdered in 1988. Al Gore's sighs and orange makeup in 2000 drew ridicule. And who could forget Barack Obama dismissing Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton as "likeable enough" in 2008?
But the Internet has intensified the impact of such gaffes, making normally risk-averse politicians even more careful — and debates even more scripted. It all raises the question: Do voters ever really get to know the people they end up electing to lead the country? And, in this era of reality TV, are viewers getting less than reality when they tune into debates because of a candidate's fear of making a campaign-ending misstep?
"The viral nature of the post-debate video has had the effect of bludgeoning candidates," said Barbara O'Connor, emeritus professor of political communications at California State University-Sacramento. "I'm not sure it's part of the intellectual discourse that debates are meant to encourage. But watching candidates under stress is certainly one indication of how they'll perform as elected leaders."
Campaigns are always ripe with potential YouTube calamities — Cain's confusion over a question about Libya at a newspaper editorial board interview became an instant classic when it went online earlier this month, as did a speech Perry gave in New Hampshire that led to speculation he might have been drunk.
But the debates have been particularly risky, given their frequency this year and the huge audiences they have drawn. A CNN forum set for Tuesday night in Washington will be the 11th Republican debate since May, and at least two more are scheduled before the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3.
The candidates were careful not to make many mistakes in the most recent forum, on Nov. 12. Devoted to foreign policy, the gathering produced no YouTube moments, but also not much news.
No one has been more cautious in debates than Romney, the field's nominal front-runner. The former Massachusetts governor has worked to draw little attention to himself, choosing his words carefully when answering questions and often refusing to take the bait if a rival tries to goad him or get under his skin.
Romney lost his cool once at a debate in October, after Perry pushed him to explain why he had once used a lawn care service that employed illegal immigrants. Romney said he had confronted the gardening service and insisted that they stop.
"Look,'" he said he told the service, "you can't have any illegals working on our property. I'm running for office, for Pete's sake! I can't have illegals!"
The line went viral immediately, drawing plenty of guffaws and renewing criticism of Romney as lacking core principles.
Reluctance to make a mistake carries its own pitfalls, according to Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Forum, which studies the intersection of politics and technology.
"A fish never gets in trouble if it doesn't open its mouth, but there can be backlash against that," Rasiej said. "The candidate that recognizes the environment and is willing to engage in it authentically has the most potential to take advantage of it and manage the negative effects."
The debates have also helped boost momentum for once-struggling candidates like Cain, whose campaign caught fire after he promoted his 9-9-9 tax plan.
But Cain's debate performances became noticeably more careful after rising poll numbers made him a target for his rivals and after he was forced on the defensive over evidence he may have sexually harassed female subordinates when he was president of the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has also seen his fortunes improve thanks to several well-received debate performances, and polls now show him running roughly even with Romney. But Gingrich has acknowledged his new position means he will be more heavily scrutinized in debates and elsewhere. His campaign took the unusual step of setting up a new website, "Answering the Attacks," which seeks to pre-emptively respond to criticisms.
"The potential army of detractors or amplifiers has expanded exponentially, which makes the candidates more sensitive," Rasiej said. "Now, everyone's a publisher and everyone's a distributor. It makes the candidates realize there is no safe harbor anymore."
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