Pols pine for the demos, but may trip on the stunts

The “satire circuit,” as it’s coming to be called, is turning out to be both a lure and a trap for politicos.

“Several years ago, the satire shows were a phenomenon,” says former Reagan aide and media strategist Eric Dezenhall. “Now, they are the establishment.”

Once thought of as stunt booking, the political satire shows — Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report,” and HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” — are becoming a regular feature in political campaigns.

“What’s most interesting is they’ve become part of the standard rotation; they’re part of the atmosphere and help shape the conversation,” says ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos.

Recent gaffes by Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who completed a tongue-in-cheek sentence about why he enjoyed cocaine, and Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who couldn’t name more than three of the 10 Commandments, on “The Colbert Report” have reminded the politicians that satire shows can be a minefield.

But candidates, like Ned Lamont, are being pushed by their twentysomething political staffers to connect with younger demos. And strategists say the shows are key to courting “the irony demo”: the coastal, college-educated cadre of young viewers who get much of their political analysis in the form of satire.

Sure, politicos still covet the mainstream media forums like “Meet the Press” and latenight stalwarts Letterman, Leno and Conan (and even “Saturday Night Live”) have been a staple for political celebs like John McCain and Barack Obama since Bill Clinton appeared on the “Arsenio Hall Show.”

“Politicians go on these shows to reach a different audience; it’s an opportunity to humanize themselves in a different way than a hard news show allows them to do,” says consultant Craig Minassian, a former Clinton aide later consulted on “The Daily Show’s” campaign coverage

With “The Daily Show’s” 1.6 million viewers and Colbert’s 1.4 mil, the duo outweigh just about every show on cable news, short of Bill O’Reilly (whom Colbert calls “Papa Bear”). When you count the multiple airings both shows get per day, and their far younger demo, Congress has clued in that they reach way more young people in their districts than “The O’Reilly Factor” or “Larry King Live.”

Obscure congressmen who have a hard time booking a place on “Hardball” are lining up to play along with Colbert for his “Better Know a District” segments. Once thought to be home turf for Democrats, the venue is getting more popular among Republicans.

Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, the first Republican to give it a try, appeared on “Colbert” in May. “As a conservative entering the lion’s den of liberal entertainment, there’s a novelty factor,” Kingston says. “Because of that people will actually listen to you.”

Performing well on these shows is emerging as a huge advantage, especially for those who want to establish a national profile on an issue, or to get into the standard pundit rotation on TV.

“Not everyone can play in this arena so it will redefine what kind of candidate can survive,” says Dezenhall.

But performing well can prove difficult for politicians accustomed to controlling their media environment and adhering to talking points.

“The mistake most people make is going on ‘The Daily Show’ with a message,” says Reed Dickens, former Bush strategist and former adviser to the Schwarzenegger campaign. “But it’s not about message, it’s about tone.”

It’s a difficult trick to appear likeable in that environment as Democrat Brad Sherman, who reps a district that includes the San Fernando Valley, found when he ended up bickering with Colbert over whether his district is the nucleus of the multibillion-dollar porn industry.

Westmoreland ran into a buzz saw when Colbert pointed out he had not introduced a single piece of legislation in nearly two years. “Does this make you the ‘do-nothingest’ congressman?” he asked.

Westmoreland had co-sponsored a bill to require the Ten Commandments be displayed in the Capitol, but when asked to name them, replied, “What, all of them?” and came up with three.

Last spring, Colbert started taping the segs in a conference room in the Rayburn House Office Building in D.C. Congressmen are asked to clear at least two hours and to show up with personal effects to make the room look more like their congressional office.

Some had never watched “The Colbert Report.”

That was true of Wexler, who had never seen “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” before his 29-year-old press secretary showed him clips.

Wexler, like many members of the House, has no significant opposition in the 2006 midterm elections so Colbert asked him to say “some things that would really lose the election for you if you were contested.” Asked to complete the sentence “I enjoy cocaine because,” Wexler responded, “I enjoy cocaine because it’s a fun thing to do.”

The clip blew up on Youtube and on the blogs, and was taken out of context the next day on “Today” and “Good Morning America.” The ensuing flap forced Colbert to drop character in his TV show to do damage-control, defending Wexler. “He knew it was a joke and was confident enough to play along.”

Asked about the incident at a press conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “I wouldn’t recommend anyone going on that show. Don’t subject yourself to a comic’s edit unless you want to be made a fool of.”

Republican press secretaries were also cautioned to steer their congressmen clear of Colbert.

Yet Colbert’s most public defense came from little-known Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who wrote an op-ed piece defending the show in the L.A. Times. “When I go on a show like that, I’m reaching out to young people, saying I’m not some esoteric jerk trying to run your life,” Terry says.

Even though many Dems assume Stewart and Colbert are playing for the home team, Republicans often perform better on the shows, as they’re generally more willing to play it straight.

Still many are skeptical that satire shows are fertile ground for politicos. “There are only about 100 zip codes in America where Jon Stewart is a big deal,” says Mike Murphy, consultant and former campaign manager for Sen. John McCain. “The swing state of Michigan doesn’t really rock to ‘The Daily Show.’ ”

With a natural constituency among the so-called “irony class,” McCain is one of few pols with the personality to succeed in the format. Will that help him on the campaign trail in 2008?

Not likely, says Murphy. Appearing on “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” didn’t help John Kerry in 2004; George Bush avoided the shows.

“I don’t think there’s an upside to going there and being Stewart’s stunt dummy,” he says.

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