CHARLESTON, S.C. - The day before South Carolina's January 21 primary, the comedian Stephen Colbert had some instructions for an exuberant crowd of about 3,000 people: "I want you to vote for Herman Cain," he said. "Because Herman Cain is me."
The host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report"-- who also says he's running to be "President of the United States of South Carolina" -- rushed onstage singing "This Little Light of Mine" before thanking a handful of conservative South Carolina politicians not in attendance, and making fun of the current GOP presidential field.
After a lengthy introduction, he brought in Herman Cain -- his co-host and, as he put it, "the man we're all gathered here to see introduce me." (This assessment ultimately proved accurate.)
Cain, Colbert hammed, is similar to him in many ways: "We both flout convention when it comes to things like taxes and debt and how many Ubekis there are in Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan."
But, he added, "he possesses the one thing I don't think I will ever have: A place on the South Carolina primary ballot."
Taking to the stage for his share of the spectacle, Cain was unapologetic about participating in an event that, ostensibly, means to make a mockery of the very presidential race from which he only recently withdrew.
But "the Hermanator," as Colbert referred to him, stopped short of actually encouraging the thousands of young people on hand to actually vote for him.
"Stephen Colbert asked you to vote for Herman Cain," he said, "I'm going to ask you to not vote for Herman Cain and here's why. I don't want you to waste your vote. Every vote counts and yours still matters and you still matter."
The former Godfather's Pizza CEO proceeded with standard remarks about the need for change in Washington and the merits of his 9-9-9 tax plan. (One 9-9-9 reference prompted someone in the audience to shout, "stop!")
Following Cain's speech, Colbert got down to explaining the serious business of his pro-Cain movement, perhaps surprising some spectators with the revelation of an actual (sort of) agenda.
After launching into a "Colbert Report"-style defense of super PACs and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that fueled their rise -- not to mention a surprisingly comprehensive explanation of the nation's campaign finance system -- the mock-candidate explained the logic of his endorsement.
"The pundits have asked, is this all some joke? We've all heard it, haven't we?" Colbert lamented. "I say, if they are calling being allowed to form a super PAC and collect unlimited, untraceable amounts of money from individuals, unions, and corporations; and spend that money on political ads and for personal enrichment; and then surrender that super PAC to one of my closest friends while I explore a run for office; if that is a joke, then they are saying our entire campaign finance system is a joke!"
Vote for Cain, Colbert urged, "because he shares my beliefs? I don't know, I haven't asked him. The point is, I share his beliefs and you share my beliefs - so by the transitive property, he shares your beliefs."
He continued: "Tomorrow, January 21, the two year anniversary of Citizens United, you can thank the Supreme Court by going into that voting booth and voting for Herman Cain. Because, sadly, it is still illegal to vote with just pure cash."
After the remarks, observers were revved up -- if a little bit confused -- about what they had just seen.
Twenty-year-old Eliot Schupp, a student at the College of Charleston, said he thought Colbert was "trying to promote a message" with the rally.
When asked what that message was, he paused and laughed.
"I guess the point of the rally was to kind of point out some of the ridiculous things that go into elections, like corporate interests and things of that nature," jumped in his friend Thomas Freeman, a 21-year-old junior at the school. "And comedy, frankly, just for entertainment."
Chessie McGarrity, a 23-year-old gallery assistant and "hard-core Democrat," was skeptical that the crowd had really taken in the meaning of Colbert's schtick.
"I hope they did!" she said. "But I feel like a lot of things he says does go over people's heads. They don't really know the way to take him."
At least one student walked away with a different interpretation of the day's events.
"Honestly, I probably would choose Cain as a Vice President," laughed Holly Atwater, a senior studying psychology at the College of Charleston.
Before, Atwater said, "I thought he was a little too liberal for my liking."
That all changed with Friday's so-called "Rock Me Like a Herman Cain: South Cain-Olina Primary Rally."
"Herman Cain definitely kind of opened my eyes on some of the stuff that I did not know that he was open to," she said.