Next on “ET” — Politics!?

Clinton_2 The morning after her contentious Philadelphia presidential debate against Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton offered her own post-mortem — not to ABC News, which aired the forum, but to “Entertainment Tonight.”

“ET” also took the chance to ask her about the Texas polygamy raid (“very sad”), and of her favorite Mother’s Day memory (after Chelsea Clinton was born).

In a presidential race where pop culture is given almost as much credence as politics, the candidates can’t ignore these promoters of entertainment. Almost since the candidates began their runs, they have appeared on “Entertainment Tonight” and sister show “The Insider,” as well as “Access Hollywood” and “Extra.” The hypercompetitive pre-primetime strip shows are tapping in like never before — and the candidates are making themselves or family members available for interviews.

The resulting packages offer up candidates just as if they were Angelina or Brad, delivered to early-evening auds with the same glitz and breathless intensity.

“Given the impact of the writers strike, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain have been the biggest TV stars this year,” says Linda Bell Blue, exec producer of “ET” and “The Insider.”

The entertainment shows covered the candidates sporadically in past cycles, but never to this extent and never so early in the process. And the emphasis, not surprisingly, is on the personal.

Credit_access_hollywood_steve_forre The night before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton admitted to “Access Hollywood’s” Maria Menounos that she is sometimes concerned about her weight. “Who isn’t, really?” On “Extra,” when special correspondent Tim Daly noted to John Edwards that they both have people who “fuss with us and put makeup on and do our hair,” Edwards said, with a smile, “I don’t have any makeup on.”

In the same week in February, Barack Obama did a double shot of “The Insider” and “ET.” The former featured “unprecedented access,” including flying with the candidate on the campaign’s private plane; on the latter Obama admitted of his wife, Michelle Obama, “She’s allowed to tease me, but I’m not allowed to tease her.”

Campaigns see the shows not just as venues to reach audiences that may not otherwise be tuned into politics — particularly women 18-49 or 25-54 — but also a friendly place to show off their candidates’ softer side. Menounos noted on her blog that the Clinton campaign turned down Tim Russert but agreed to her interview.

The grilling comes not from a panel of opinionated hosts, a la “The View,” or a latenight show where the onus is on the candidate to be funny, but from correspondents ready to tee up questions as if they are still staked out on the red carpet. (A pre-Iowa question to Bill Clinton: “How much fun is it to be back on the campaign trail?”)

The campaigns “are very, very interested in our female-rich audience,” Bell Blue says. “They are going after the women’s vote, talking about things that they probably wouldn’t be talking about on other shows.”

Diet, body image, favorite movies, downtime, relationships, best friends — all are ripe for discussion. Reps for the shows say the campaigns don’t set any ground rules.

“I don’t think anybody does that,” says Rob Silverstein, exec producer of “Access Hollywood.” “This isn’t like Hollywood publicists. If they tried to and we reported that, it would make them look really bad.”

That’s not to say that all questions come sugar-coated. When “The Insider” caught up with Hillary Clinton just after the Texas debate in February, correspondent Victoria Recano at first told her “You were amazing!” but then asked for a comment on a New York Times story that suggested McCain had an affair with a telecom lobbyist.

Even though Cindy McCain has been reticent about granting interviews to the traveling press corps, she did sit down with “Access Hollywood’s” Nancy O’Dell two weeks ago. What she got was a question about the New York Times story.

“I knew the truth,” McCain said. “I was angry at the newspaper, of course, but I knew the truth. I didn’t have to ask anything or talk to anybody about it. I knew the truth and I know my husband.”

Silverstein says the interview “probably went a little further than (the McCain campaign) would have liked. I think they made a phone call to our producer, to make sure it was handled with dignity, which of course we would do.

“We delve into people’s personal lives,” he adds. “We know how to do it. If you don’t expect it from us, then you haven’t been briefed.”Although it’s difficult to measure whether such appearances goose ratings, Silverstein says when that interview aired, the New York market “popped a number we haven’t popped before.”

The Insider’s” Lara Spencer interviewed Hillary Clinton in April, 2007, and, despite some ribbing from the likes of Jon Stewart (as when Clinton talked about shoes and rationing her chocolate intake), it seemed to pave the way for many other appearances.

More than any other candidate, it’s Clinton who has tapped into the nightly shows, going so far as to tell “Extra” correspondent A.J. Calloway, in the true spirit of promotion, “People draw their own conclusions from watching ‘Extra.’ ”

“Hillary is a walk in the park. She is fantastic. She invites us around,” says Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, exec producer of “Extra.”

Obama, by contrast, seems more reticent about the shows, and while McCain has yet to do a segment since securing the GOP nomination, the invitation is always there.

“I think it is smart,” says Todd Harris, who was communications director for Fred Thompson’s prexy bid, as well as previous campaigns of McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger. “When you go on a show like ‘Access Hollywood’ or ‘Entertainment Tonight’ you are reaching a voter segment that you don’t reach by showing up on ‘Meet the Press’ or C-SPAN.”

He adds, “More people will have heard Cindy McCain’s reaction to the New York Times story on ‘Access Hollywood’ than those who actually read the New York Times story in the first place.”

The entertainment shows do plan to cover the conventions, as well as any other story that strikes their fancy. And Silverstein is planning a segment on Michelle Obama’s comparison’s to Jacqueline Kennedy, and plans are afoot to do a sitdown with Obama for “Access Hollywood.”

“We’ll get him,” Silverstein says. “It is just a matter of when and where.”

Photo: Lara Spencer of “The Insider” with Hillary Clinton in April, 2007. (ET/The Insider).

Photo: Nancy O’Dell and Cindy McCain on “Access Hollywood” (Steve Forrest, Access Hollywood)

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