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Candidates embrace the chat

Daytime gabfests and late-night comedy TV become essential stops on the presidential trail to reach 'regular folks.'

September 29, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

new york -- It was another hectic day on the campaign trail for Sen. Barack Obama. A last-minute Senate vote Thursday forced him to truncate a swing through Manhattan and make an unscheduled trip to Washington. Afterward, he raced back to New York for a late-afternoon rally with thousands of supporters in Washington Square Park and the requisite fundraiser.

Still, before the day was over, the Democratic presidential hopeful managed to squeeze in time to visit an influential national television program: "The Tyra Banks Show."

During the hourlong show, which airs Monday, the supermodel turned TV personality challenged her guest to a game of pickup basketball and had him look in a crystal ball to divine his future.

As the 2008 race steams forward, Obama is not the only presidential candidate carving out time to banter on television entertainment talk shows. Long regarded as less venerable venues than their hard-news counterparts, daytime gabfests and late-night comedy programs have emerged this year as essential stamping grounds for those seeking the White House.

September alone saw Fred Thompson break the news of his Republican presidential candidacy to Jay Leno, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) visit a diner with Ellen DeGeneres, Clinton's husband swap healthy eating tips with Martha Stewart and John Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, confide in Rachael Ray.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who announced his own bid on "The Late Show With David Letterman" in February, made his 10th appearance on "The Daily Show" in August. And Obama (D-Ill.) got arguably the biggest boost from a talk show appearance when he scored an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey in May.

"I think the talk shows will decide who is in the White House in 2008," said Bill Geddie, executive producer of "The View," who has lined up visits from Clinton, Obama and McCain. "There have been a hundred debates, and who's seen them? Voters operate on two fronts: 'Do I like this person?' and 'Do I agree with this person?' A talk show is the first step toward helping them decide if they like a person."

Dating back to Arsenio

Presidential candidates have sought to showcase their lighter sides on late-night programs as far back as 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon visited with Jack Paar on "The Tonight Show." But talk show appearances didn't become a campaign mainstay until after 1992, when Bill Clinton's saxophone wailing on "The Arsenio Hall Show" helped him project youthful energy.

"Since then it has continued to escalate," said Democratic campaign veteran Chris Lehane, who courted prominent talk show hosts when he worked on Al Gore's 2000 Democratic presidential bid. "As politics has devolved into much more of insider-baseball, process-oriented coverage, these are the types of outlets that allow the candidates to connect and communicate who they are as people."

One major draw: the shows' friendly environs, where the personal usually takes precedence over policy. When Sen. Clinton made an appearance on "The View" in December, she gushed about her love of Christmas ornaments. John and Elizabeth Edwards got substantially gentler treatment from Leno on "The Tonight Show" than they did from Katie Couric on "60 Minutes."

The public's booming appetite for dishy, celebrity-driven programs has spawned an array of television venues where candidates can find affable interviewers -- and the campaigns have sought to exploit them. Clinton, for example, spoke this summer with Lara Spencer of the syndicated show "The Insider," a spinoff of "Entertainment Tonight."

But just because the programs are not combative doesn't mean they're not revelatory, television executives argue.

"We are living in a time of personality," said Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development for CBS Television Distribution, which produces "Rachael Ray" and "Dr. Phil," among other programs. "When you get on a stage like this, you can be asked a question you might not be able to plan for, and sometimes those are the most revealing answers. I think these shows help define the character of the person who will be president, and that's probably more important in this election than any in the past."

As a result, programs devoted mainly to fashion makeovers, self-help tips and celebrity appearances are having a growing influence on the political landscape.

"The truth is, even though the Washington crowd may hate to hear it, most voters could care less about what the pundits have to say about this election," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "The number of regular folks who tune in to 'Tyra' and 'The View' every day pretty far outpaces folks who get their kicks reading the Note and Hotline," two political news websites.

Growing relevance

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