July 14. 2011 7:14PM

First-ever 'Twitter' presidential debate is brainchild of NH activist/web specialist

Senior Political Reporter

Twitter debate links

Twitter accounts of candidates confirmed for debate Michele Bachmann
Herman Cain
Newt Gingrich
Gary Johnson
Tim Pawlenty
Rick Santorum
Candidates not confirmed for debate Jon Huntsman
Ron Paul
Mitt Romney

MANCHESTER -- A young New Hampshire conservative activist has combined his political acumen and his expertise in web technology to play a key role in producing the first-ever Twitter presidential debate next week.

"The media and people who follow politics are fascinated by Twitter," said Andrew Hemingway of Bristol, who said he came up with the idea and concept for the debate as part of his work at his firm, which helps politicians maximize the communications power of Twitter.

"When the worlds of politics and Twitter collide, there's a massive explosion," Hemingway, a 29-year-old Granite State native and chairman of the grassroots New Hampshire Republican Liberty Caucus, said Thursday.

Hemingway and his partners in the venture see next Wednesday's debate as just the beginning of new way for candidates to interact with each other and voters. He said the sponsorship of the national nonprofit TheTeaParty.net made the debate possible.

Individual candidates and officials have recently begun holding Twitter town halls to respond to voters' questions. President Barack Obama held one last week.

But never before has there been a managed, interactive debate among presidential hopefuls in the so-called "Twitter-sphere."

But next Wednesday at about 3 p.m., Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and Gary Johnson are expected to go at it for about 90 minutes on a Twitter-connected web site named 140TownHall.com.

Hemingway said he "fully expects" Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman to join, but he said organizers have not yet heard from GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney.

The candidates will get on their computers, Blackberries, iPads, or "anything that has web access," Hemingway said, and will log on to the site.

The moderators, Fox News contributor S.E. Cupp and radio talk show host Rusty Humphries, will begin to tweet questions.

With the Twitter limit for any one "tweet" at 140 characters, Hemingway said the candidates will be allowed two tweets per answer.

The moderators will pose follow-ups and candidates will be allowed to respond to each other.

"It will be close to the format we saw in the debate back on June 13," he said, "except that it's all done on Twitter."

Viewers across the country can go to 140TownHall.com or twitter.com/#!/search/140townhall to watch and participate.

Hemingway said that by going to either site and typing in @140townhall, viewers can submit questions for possible use by the moderators and react to the debate in real time.

The debate web site, currently in demo-only mode, will display, in real time, the number of followers added to each candidate, the number of mentions and the number of re-tweets.

A separate, main section will show the questions and answers , while other sections will provide space for viewers to write and submit questions and to view the overall public "feed."

Hemingway said that in New Hampshire, a viewing party is planned for the Grappone Center in Concord. The debate will be shown on a large screen, and Cupp, one of the two moderators, will be based there, he said.

For Hemingway, it's the culmination of several years of political activism and professional involvement in the web.

"As my interest in politics began to grow and I began to do more stuff politically, obviously my interest in blending my profession and passion started to work together," he said.

Several months ago, he said, "Working with one of my political clients, I came up with an idea: What if we could put my client and other well-known high profile people on the same platform using Twitter?"

He said Massachusetts web developer Adam Green, founder and CEO of 140 Dev, LLC, a consulting company that specializes in Twitter Application Programming Interface, developed the multi-faceted platform.

"I said, ‘Why don't we do a presidential debate?'" Hemingway said. "I started feeling around and there appeared to be some interest in it."
Hemingway said the idea took off when TheTeaParty.net agreed to sponsor the event.

"If they hadn't come in and put up the money, we wouldn't have been able to do this," he said.

Hemingway said that Gingrich "is particularly important" to the debate because, as the Washington-based web site Politico noted in a story this week, the former House speaker overwhelmingly with Romney and Bachmann, each have about 60,000 followers.

"The beauty of this debate is that when Gingrich brings his followers to the debate, they will be exposed to the other candidates, allowing the other candidates in theory to add thousands of additional followers," Hemingway said.

"It's going to be a win for everybody," he said.

Hemingway, who has an office in Manchester, owns a firm called Digital Acumen.

"We teach politicians to use Twitter to their best advantage," he said.

Among his clients, Hemingway handles congressionally-oriented Twitter activities for recently announced presidential candidate Rep. Thad McCotter, although Hemingway said he is not involved in McCotter's presidential campaign.

The debate, he said, "will be a continuation in the development of this communications revolution," he said. "It continues to allow people access to political figures in a way they haven't had before.

"It's a new communications wave, but the cool thing is that we're at the very beginning," he said.