Google was in Washington Wednesday for a less voluntary reason , but Thursday night, the search giant happily enters the political arena to co-host the "Fox News-Google" GOP debate at 9 p.m. EST. As at previous debates, viewers can submit questions via YouTube--already more than 16,000 have been submitted from all 50 states and even international markets such as Israel and South Korea. And while the event is a slight departure for Google--last year, it partnered with CNN for what was called the "YouTube" debates--it's a departure that should shine more attention on Google's brand as a whole.
For one, Republican debates promise more ratings for Google on Fox News, a right-leaning network, than on CNN, which has struggled to maintain ratings as of late. (In the first round of debates, for example, Fox's series boasted roughly 1.5 million more viewers  than CNN's.) Steve Grove, head of news and politics for YouTube, says there was "no great science" to the partnership, but he acknowledges, "They do have great ratings."
"I guess the reason we went with 'Google' [and not 'YouTube'] is because we're using both Google and YouTube tools," he says, referring to the Google-developed Moderator platform, which will help users vote questions and topics up or down. "Not everyone knows that Google owns YouTube, but certainly they'll see that during the debate."
Such a prominent stage as a presidential primary debate is a great opportunity for Google and other companies to showcase their services. Facebook partnered with NBC for its presidential debate, while Twitter played a significant role during CNN's recent event. "Frankly, debates are our most sacred public forums," Grove says. "[They] are just perfect for technology to play a role."
But as much as he's excited to add more technology to presidential debates--he envisions Android and other mobile platforms could play a bigger part--he's hesitant to open the floodgates. "You don't want to throw 15 tools at it and make it look to widget-y and wonky," Grove says.
One of the tools that won't be making an appearance Thursday night? Google+. A reminder of just how young the service is, Google will not be featuring the service during the debate, despite how quickly the much-touted social network has been growing, and despite what a great opportunity it would be to promote.
"I think Google+ holds a lot of promise for future debates," he says. "I don't have any specific ideas to share just yet, because we're still trying to get the platform ready to go. But I do think that as Google as a company expands to be not just about web pages, but about people, that that social focus will make formats like debates and town halls and interviews all the more effective and useful."
Grove told me at the time that until the network opens invites to the public, Google+ will not be featured in the debate. (Earlier this week, Google+ did in fact open invites up, although it was evidently too near tomorrow night's debate. Perhaps in January Google will feel more comfortable featuring Google+, when it hosts another debate with PBS.)
For now, this much is clear enough: As much as Google relishes its network's exponential expansion--from 10 million  to 20 million  to 25 million users --Google+ is not yet ready for prime time.
[Image: Flickr user IowaPolitics.com ]