Much to everyone’s surprise, the commission did not choose one of the finalist cities that many considered a shoe-in for a debate—namely, New Orleans. Afterward, a wide range of Louisiana leaders, including Senator Mary Landrieu, the editorial board of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the former VP of the New Orleans Saints, decried the commission’s snub.

Largely lost in the subsequent uproar was the commission’s tentative commitment to include a Webby feature in one of its four debates.

“The second departure from past CPD formats will be the introduction of Internet access to the presidential town meeting debate,” noted the commission’s press release. “Questions solicited by Internet will be included with those from citizens on the stage with the candidates.”

There was no mention of Google.

That winter, Google executives reached out to the losing team from New Orleans, their fellow snubbees, and a partnership was born.

Mr. Boorstin told NYTV that teaming up with the New Orleans Consortium (a hodgepodge of various civic organizations, universities and business leaders) made good sense for both parties.

“It lets the state and the city of New Orleans put their best foot forward and call attention to what’s been done and what still needs to be done,” said Mr. Boorstin. “And it allows us to continue to break ground with voter involvement.”

If the candidates eventually agree to participate in the forum—which is no sure thing—will Google add a TV partner? “We’re looking at all sorts of options that include either forming a partnership with a network, or figuring out a way to independently produce it,” said Mr. Boorstin. In the latter case, Google would likely give away the feed for free to anyone who wants it.

When contacted recently by The Observer, one TV news executive said that any network, including his own, would jump at the opportunity to co-host the New Orleans debate with Google and Co. That said, he was skeptical that the candidates would ultimately agree to add another debate (with its heavy preparation time) to their jam-packed schedules. To date, none of the three remaining candidates have publicly accepted the invitation.

James Carville, the ubiquitous Democratic strategist and Louisiana native, told The Observer that the candidates could go to New Orleans and—time management!—skip one of the commission-sponsored debates in return.

“That commission has run its course,” said Mr. Carville. “It’s an idea whose time has come and gone. I think Google and YouTube and other people are seeing a kind of vacuum, and they’re moving into it. I can’t imagine a presidential candidate not wanting to participate in this debate.”

Whether the commission is still planning to include some sort of nondenominational Web component to one of its debates remains unclear. Ms. Brown did not respond to a call seeking comment.

Ms. Wilner, who stopped working for the commission back in January, said that while Google is the first media company this year to try an end run around the gatekeepers, it might not be the last. Given how much success the TV networks have enjoyed throughout this winter and spring hosting their own debates, she said she could envision other media companies—particularly those feeling frustrated with the commission—trying to lure the candidates into long-shot debates.

“They’ve had success with their own style debates,” said Ms. Wilner. “They’re not necessarily in a frame of mind where they want to kibbitz and kumbaya with everybody else. Eventually, everybody is going to want to do their own thing.”