Campaigning For Votes ... And Laughs

If you're running for president, you have to show up at the Iowa State Fair and you have to debate just about every day.

Now there's a new tradition that's fast becoming as familiar as kissing a baby or chowing down on local grub: an appearance on "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report" — the twin towers of the Comedy Central network's political coverage, labeled "Indecision 2008," reports CBS News chief political analyst Jeff Greenfield.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was with Jon Stewart on Wednesday night.

"With the experience thing, have you thought about running a smaller country first?" asks "The Daily Show" host.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was with "Colbert Report" host Stephen Colbert last week.

"I was on the Stephen Colbert show not once, but twice, and you gave me the bump the last time," Huckabee said on the show.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a "Daily Show" favorite, has been on 10 times; most recently, to talk abut his campaign woes.

"In the words of Chairman Mao, 'It's always darkest just before it's totally black,'" he quipped.

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So what's the appeal?

"You actually end up being more truthful and talking more substance on a show like this than you do sometimes on some of these other shows," says Obama.

You can see why candidates would flock to shows that can reach more than a million mostly young, mostly male viewers — one of the most elusive and desirable of audiences. For Comedy Central, there's a clear bottom-line payoff.

"It's big business for us now," says Michelle Ganeless, a Comedy Central vice president. "The franchise of 'Indecision' has become one of our biggest success stories with advertisers."

Advertisers like Volkswagen, which has made a multimillion-dollar buy. The network, which has launched a freestanding "Indecision 2008" Web site, also plans a politically-themed comedy tour.

"They're reaching an audience that's interested in politics — but that's younger, and that's a rarity," says Ganeless.

It's the kind of coverage that has a very different feel from the old days: When John Kennedy went on Jack Paar's "Tonight" Show back in 1960; the treatment was deferential — almost fawning.

"May … may I call you Jack?" Parr asked.

That's not so much the case today.

"I only mean this in the most respectable way: Who the hell are you?" Colbert recently asked Huckabee.

And Stewart to Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.: "Is there anything in Delaware the Bidens don't control?"

"It's tough humor, but there's always an intellectual bite to it," Biden said.

Not every candidate finds the network comfortable turf. Neither Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani nor Mitt Romney has shown up so far. Even so, Comedy Central is showing that political funny business can mean serious profits.

  • Michelle Singer

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