In one of the last presidential debates before the primaries begin in January, eight Republican candidates stiffly embraced the informality of the YouTube generation before turning on each other, reflecting the wide-open nature of the contest.
Amid the bad-tempered debate in St Petersburg on Wednesday night, one candidate stood out. Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and televangelist, is sprinting ahead of his rivals among Republican voters in Iowa and a strong performance in Florida has put him in play as a contender for the nomination.
While his rivals squabbled, he came off sounding presidential. And when asked how Jesus would feel about the death penalty, the Bible-thumping Southern Baptist wisecracked that "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office."
Two other candidates, John McCain and Fred Thompson were also judged to have done well despite the rancour of the evening.
Watching eight white men in dark suits field questions posted on YouTube on God, guns, gays in the military, abortion rights, immigration and the war on terror was at times surreal.
Some of the toughest questioning focused on illegal immigration, a hot button issue for Republicans, and one on which the leading candidate Rudy Giuliani is most vulnerable. But then there was a T-shirt wearing, corn-on-the-cob eating Californian expressing outrage at the billions the US spends on farm subsidies. Another angry young man brandished a Bible and demanded to know whether the candidates believed every literal word of it. There was a question about the confederate flag from a bedroom decked out with the symbol of white supremacy.
From the outset the two leading candidates, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney were at each others throats. Mr Giuliani went on the defensive when asked by a man from Brooklyn about giving sanctuary to illegal immigrants as New York mayor. There was no such policy he protested. All he had done was allow the children of illegal immigrants to go to school and be treated in hospital emergency rooms.
When Mitt Romney accused him of running a "sanctuary city", Mr Giuliani claimed his rival had employed illegal workers to mow his lawn. "There was even a sanctuary mansion," he said to loud applause.
Even on this contentious issue, Mr Huckabee came across as a compassionate leader prepared to grant scholarships to the bright children of illegal immigrants, while Mr Giuliani and Mr Romney seemed mean spirited and insincere.
Mr Giuliani has led in the national polls but is falling behind in Iowa and New Hampshire where the first contests are to be held in January. He found himself under scrutiny over his ugly divorce and remarriage, and his stance on gun control.
CNN selected the questions from about 5,000 posted on YouTube, however there were none about health care, global warming or global issues like the eradication of disease or poverty in the developing world.
But there were some spirited moments on the subject of torture when Mr McCain who was tortured during his five years in a Vietnamese prison attacked Mr Romney for his failure to condemn the practice of waterboarding or partial drowning of detainees to make them talk.
"You would have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva Conventions," a furious Mr McCain said.Reuse content