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So many hats in the ring, so little time

As the TV debates multiply, the GOP scouts for its star; Dems vie for best in show.

August 06, 2007|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

The only "Simpsons" series character whose name was changed for the movie was Austrian-born action star Rainer Wolfcastle, who goes by the name of President Schwarzenegger.

This is satire, I think. There are nine Republican contenders for president and many more in the party looking for a rock-star candidate.

Is it Rudy Giuliani, a.k.a. the Mayor of Terror Town? Mitt Romney, who bears a spooky resemblance to CBS CEO Leslie Moonves? Tom Tancredo or Tommy Thompson, both of whose names would restore alliteration to the White House for the first time since the Reagan era?

I woke up early Sunday morning to watch the GOP contenders debate on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," live from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Given the hour (8 a.m.), it felt a bit like going to church, from what I've heard about going to church. For the occasion, Stephanopoulos seemed to have lowered his hair so that he looked like one of those young-turk Madison Avenue smoothies on AMC's great new drama, "Mad Men."

But there was plenty of "Mad Men" hair to go around (no offense, Sen. McCain, Rep. Tancredo, Gov. Thompson and Mayor of Terror Town). Stephanopoulos, that hopeless wonk, introduced the candidates according to how an ABC News/Washington Post poll said they were faring in Iowa, from first (Romney) to last (Duncan Hunter, who nevertheless had the best tie).

According to the poll, the Mayor of Terror Town is second, and commitment-phobe Fred Thompson (I pictured him scrambling eggs as the debate was beginning, his wife calling out, "Honey, do you care? It's starting") is third.

The Republicans need Thompson's D.A. Arthur Branch onstage, if only to boot "Law & Order" reruns off the air, thus helping America clear DVR space.

Busy, busy, busy

Thompson initially teased that he'd jump into the ring on July 4. Now he's become like Prince in concert in Vegas -- the ticket says he'll go onstage at 10 and he shows up sometime after midnight, by which time you're too drunk to care.

Oh, well, as Prince would say, we all want a love bizarre. This presidential campaign season has never seemed so busy so early -- each week brings new themed forums and unofficial debates, some televised, the Web an ever-burgeoning repository of campaign ads and sound bites.

With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats are winning the celebrity race, two TV stars to none. HillBill Vol. 2 versus Barack on whether to have lunch with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is good stuff, and when Obama said in a subsequent speech last week that he'd drop the hammer on putative ally Pakistan if it meant getting at wanted terrorists, the squawking continued.

Meanwhile, in GOP land, the two big TV appearances last week were Dick Cheney's sit-down on "Larry King Live" and Donald Rumsfeld's appearance at a hearing into the friendly-fire death of Army ranger Pat Tillman. "The Rummy Returns," the graphic said on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

Smelling blood in the water, even the lesser lights on the Democratic side are scoring booking coups: Christopher Dodd entered the ring with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly last week to defend the honor of the liberal website Daily Kos (conveniently before he attended last weekend's Yearly Kos convention), while Dennis Kucinich managed to book himself on Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" -- the Kucinich campaign posted in the wake of Snyder's death a 1970s-era interview that Snyder did with the then-mayor of Cleveland.

Clearly, with such a wide-open field, this weeding-out process is taxing for anyone with a real job. I'm talking about having to watch it all. ABC tried to spice things up Sunday morning with a split screen when two men suddenly reposed in disagreement, as when Sam Brownback and Romney got into a spat over an automated ad the Brownback campaign is running in Iowa that accuses Romney of being sweet on abortion.

Apparently, there's a robot calling people in the state, saying of Romney, "His wife, Ann, has contributed money to Planned Parenthood."

"That's a truthful ad," Brownback said.

"Virtually nothing in that ad is true," Romney countered.

Actually, what was low here was Brownback punking anyone in Iowa without caller ID. Meanwhile, you couldn't blame Tancredo for being sore that he wasn't let into the discussion until 20 minutes had elapsed; it's like what HillBill Vol. 2 and John Edwards were conspiring about at that NAACP forum -- these debates are more of a cattle call.

Giuliani a Fox fave

Though on the issue of equal time, Giuliani seems unscathed. The New York Times, citing research compiled by the political journal the Hotline, reported last week that Giuliani has logged more time on Fox News interview programs this year than any other candidate, with Sean Hannity a particular fan.

Evidently, Giuliani and Fox News chief Roger Ailes are old buds (e.g. Giuliani, as mayor, officiated at Ailes' wedding, the article noted). But Giuliani also enjoys a certain simpatico with Charlie Rose, who recently invited him into his little black room for an hour.

Over a glass of water, the candidate noted with shuddering amazement (I'm emoting for him here) that in four debates, no Democrat had used the phrase "Islamic extremism."

Giuliani repeated this factoid Sunday morning, though Romney-Moonves tried to one-up him with this zinger about Obama: "He's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week."

Band joke!

Repeatedly, whenever Romney spoke, the camera cut to his attractive wife, Ann, in the audience. Seriously, over and over the camera went to her, until it was like ABC was openly contemplating casting her as a new love interest on "Grey's Anatomy."

You gonna take that lying down, Fred Thompson's wife?

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