NEW YORK — There's the early competition for cash among Democrats, which Howard Dean is winning so far. There are the early caucus in Iowa where Dick Gephardt is fighting to finish first.
And then there's the first appearance by a Democratic presidential contender of the 2004 political season on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." The winner of this extraordinary national forum is ... the Rev. Al Sharpton!
Tonight, the wittiest, most verbally adept -- and probably the longest shot -- of the nine Democratic candidates is prepared to hold court before a live audience for two hours in the famed Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.
Sharpton gave up time on the campaign trail this week to brainstorm with the SNL writers and cast and rehearse about half a dozen skits.
In addition to Sharpton, the special guest tonight is former SNL cast member Tracy Morgan; the musical guest is girl rocker Pink; and the rumored surprise guest is Paris Hilton, currently the star of her own reality show, "The Simple Life." It was unclear whether the saucy society gal -- as she's known locally -- would be appearing with the presidential hopeful.
With the caveat that every word and joke was subject to change, reporters were invited Thursday to watch Sharpton rehearse three skits with cast members. Though they were hardly sidesplitters, the punch lines delivered by the candidate revealed his ability to read cue cards and quickly adapt to change -- a skill that has come in handy in his quixotic bid for the Oval Office.
Mostly, though, Sharpton served as a straight man to professionals such as Morgan and Horatio Sanz, who in one practice skit played a driver named Vasquez who picks up Sharpton in his town car but has no idea who he is, referring to him alternately as "Gen. Sharpton" and "Prof. Sharpton." Sharpton's funniest line in the Vasquez skit: "This guy is goofier than Bush's health-care plan."
In fact, Sharpton showed more wit off camera than he did on. For example, when a director noted during a break that the opening skit between Jimmy Fallon and the reverend was a few seconds too long, Sharpton immediately suggested, "So just cut Jimmy's part." The room broke up; Sharpton let the laughs subside and added, "I learned that at the debate."
Clearly enjoying this off-camera slam-dunk, Sharpton mockingly complained that his lines were being cut: "Does this mean that 'I'm a great American' is going on the cutting room floor?"
Dressed in a three-button black suit with a red pocket handkerchief, a blue silk tie and black suede shoes, Sharpton easily moved around the set, introducing himself at one point to Morgan's son, who was visiting the set, and Maya Rudolph's father when he showed up. But Sharpton's attention, off camera, often drifted to the balcony where reporters were stationed. At one point he motioned to a local television reporter in the balcony. "Hey, Dominic, did you see how cool I was when I was going to fall back in my chair? I lost my ghetto balance."
A schedule board in SNL creator Lorne Michaels' office revealed that Sharpton was slated to be in about half a dozen skits, in which he would play himself as president during his first day in office, Michael Jackson's father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, attorney Johnny Cochran, one of the three kings in a Christmas story and somebody in a skit titled "Oprah's favorite things."
"He had us all cracking up this week," cast member Darrell Hammond told reporters. "And he's not just funny. He's a pretty natural actor."
In an era when former presidents and current Cabinet members regularly appear on late-night talk shows, hosting SNL still stands out as a blue-ribbon invitation. The show certainly gets better ratings than the debates.
Asked if giving Sharpton this opportunity was an endorsement, Michaels insisted it was no such thing: "He's the guy who has the great one-liners, who dominates the debates. He just knows who he is and is comfortable with himself."
Sharpton is no stranger to making fun of himself in public. He passed the New York tabloid test several years ago when he allowed himself to be photographed with his much-joked-about shoulder-length hair in curlers in a beauty salon. He has since lost weight and cut his hair, which he now wears slicked back.
Certainly, a test in politics these days -- of self-deprecation if nothing else -- has been a successful appearance on Saturday Night Live.
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani got a lot of positive attention by cross-dressing on the show. Al Gore appeared in an SNL skit drinking champagne in a hot tub and improved his wooden image -- at least for a brief period. And former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno appeared, enjoying a moment to poke fun at herself for having a stiff demeanor.
To the extent that Sharpton can show a broader audience his sense of timing and humor, he is likely to win new admirers. But not even he is claiming tonight's appearance will translate into votes.
After admitting he was a little nervous, Sharpton told reporters at the end of Thursday's rehearsal that he hoped viewers would have an enjoyable evening watching him host the longtime show: "If America can learn to laugh together, maybe we can learn to learn to live together."