By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Six Republican White House hopefuls unleashed a torrent of 140-character policy pronouncements on jobs, government debt and the Tea Party on Wednesday during the first presidential debate on Twitter.
The event, hosted by an online conservative Tea Party group, gave participants a chance to raise their profile and build their followings on the popular social media site, which is increasingly used to distribute campaign messages.
While the format was groundbreaking the responses were not. Twitter's 140-character or less length limit forced the usually verbose candidates to issue talking points that sounded more like campaign slogans.
"Government doesn't create jobs. Businesses create jobs. Government needs to get out of the way," former pizza executive Herman Cain responded when asked if a president can create jobs without expanding the federal government.
"I will not rest until Obamacare is repealed. You can take it to the bank," tweeted Representative Michele Bachmann, using the derisive term favored by critics of President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul.
The debate featured general questions from moderator S.E. Cupp, a conservative columnist and author, and individual questions posed to specific candidates by the public.
Once the questions were asked, the candidates were given time to fire off responses that popped into the group's Twitter feed in the order they were sent. The public also responded, keeping up a rolling commentary.
While it was slow to get rolling, Cupp said the debate averaged 180 tweets a minute and earned 3,800 mentions and 4,500 retweets. Bachmann had the most mentions and gained the most new followers, while Cain was retweeted the most.
After the debate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich even hosted a social media after-party, inviting participants to join his Google+ Hangout on Thursday.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who leads polls and fund raising in the Republican nominating race, skipped the debate. So did Representative Ron Paul, and former governors Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah.
But Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, former Senator Rick Santorum, Representative Thaddeus McCotter and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson all participated from sites across the country.
Repealing Obama's healthcare initiative was a favorite theme for the debaters, who said it was damaging the economy and limiting personal choice.
Bachmann called the program "the largest entitlement and spending program in our country's history." Santorum said suspending implementation of the initiative would be his first executive order as president.
Not surprisingly, the candidates praised the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement for battling big government and predicted it would play a key role in the 2012 election.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)