In 2012 Race, a New Role for Late Night TV: Damage Control

Cain_kimmelDavid Letterman, Jay Leno and other kings of latenight have become routine stops in the presidential race. But the difference in the 2012 race is the willingness of campaigns to take to talkshows in moments of genuine crisis to do damage control.

Herman Cain is scheduled to appear on “Late Show With David Letterman” tonight, the end of a turbulent week for the GOP contender in which a video circulated of a meeting before the board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in which he appeared flummoxed by a question over Libya. Last week, he went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” just hours after Sharon Bialek appeared at a press conference with Gloria Allred and accused the Cain of sexually harassing her when he was president of the National Restaurant Assn. Before holding a press conference of his own, Cain sat on Kimmel’s couch and vehemently denied the allegations, chided Allred and, as the comedian suggested that one of his campaign statements now had a double entendre, the candidate laughed along with him.

The day after his infamous brain freeze during a Republican debate, Rick Perry went on “Late Show With David Letterman” to read the Top Ten list, one of a handful of stops as he tried to control the fallout from the flub. (Perry’s No. 6: “You try concentrating with Mitt Romney smiling at you. That is one handsome dude!”)

Ever since Bill Clinton went on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992, talking serious politics as well as playing the sax, latenight has been fair game for candidates, growing not only because it allows them to be seen in a different, more lighthearted environment than the news media, but that it’s even become necessary to reach audiences in an ever-fractured environment.

“Of course, in the years since 1992, there has been a blurring of the lines between news and entertainment, to today where the Republican primary more closely resembles a reality TV show than a political campaign,” said Steve Schmidt, vice chairman of public affairs at Edelman, who was chief strategist in John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

It is no longer even a novelty that a sitting president would make an in-studio appearance on a late night show. President Obama did so last month, when he was a guest on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” his second appearance since occupying the White House, and he also has done Letterman and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

What is becoming more apparent, however, is that the benefits of exposure for campaigns are being viewed as outweighing the risks, even during moments of crisis management, where once the idea of going on shows devoted to humor and satire would seem to be beneath the dignity of the moment.

Mike Buczkiewicz, segment producer for “Late Show,” said that he had been talking to the Perry campaign for months about an appearance, so it was easier to schedule on such short notice. “Exposure for a candidate, TV wise, is easy to come by,” he said. “If they come on our show and get validation from someone like David Letterman, that is a priceless commodity.” He added that with so many GOP debates this year, going on “Late Show” “pretty much allows them to step away from the pack, and to give the public the chance to learn more from the candidate.”

J.D. Gordon, a spokesman for the Cain campaign, said that the response to the candidate’s appearance on Kimmel was “great,” and he gave no indication that canceling on the show ever entered their thoughts. “That was a day we needed a light-hearted note,” he said.

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