GOP rivals go for laughs as the primaries approach

After Texas Gov. Rick Perry experienced a brain freeze before a national audience, his first post-disaster stop was the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

“You try concentrating with Mitt Romney smiling at you. That is one handsome dude,” Perry quipped during his cameo.

And last week, long-shot candidate Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, poked fun at his single-digit poll ratings on “Saturday Night Live.” “Only a few months ago, I was polling at margin of error, so to have any digit at all is a pretty big deal,” Huntsman joked.

Presidential candidates’ appearances on late night comedy shows isn’t a new idea. But it’s an increasingly popular strategy for the 2012 candidates, giving them face time with would-be voters — including those in early voting states like South Carolina, with a GOP primary set for Jan. 21.

“It’s a good way to show voters a more personable side of the candidate,” said Joel Sawyer, director for Huntsman’s S.C. campaign. “And the other reason (Huntsman) did it, frankly, is he’s a big fan of ‘SNL.’”

Perry’s appearance showed what Perry is really like, said Katon Dawson, who’s heading up the candidate’s S.C. campaign. “I’ve had people tell me that if anyone thought he was a stiff Texan, that erased it,” Dawson said. “He likes to have fun.”

Some viewers may not be fully tuned in yet to the presidential race, politicos say. But they’re tuning in to late-night TV.

“There’s more people watching these kinds of shows than watching the news closely,” said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University. “So it’s a chance to get in front of voters and connect with them. It’s a way to humanize yourself, to make fun of yourself and show that you’re likable.”

And it’s a good way to discuss the allegations that sometimes pop up.

When Georgia businessman Herman Cain was doing damage control about sexual-harassment charges this month, he found a spot on Letterman’s show a must.

“It’s a great strategy for damage control no matter who you are. Look at Hugh Grant,” Huffmon said, referring to the actor’s 1995 appearance on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” following Grant’s arrest for picking up a prostitute.

Candidates have no fear of looking “un-presidential” — not since 1992, when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton slid on his sunglasses and picked up a saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show, boosting his profile with young people and helping pave his way to the White House.

Even sitting presidents do it these days.

President Barack Obama, gearing up for the 2012 campaign, appeared last month on Leno’s show, saying he’s not paying attention to the GOP debate. Instead, he is “going to wait until everybody’s voted off the island,” a nod to the TV show “Survivor.”

Of course, the true test is whether the appearances translate into surging poll numbers and votes at the polls.

For now, Huntsman remains in the basement of both S.C. and national polls.

“It adds another dimension to the candidate but it’s ultimately not what decides a race,” Sawyer said.

To read more, visit www.thestate.com.

Related stories from McClatchy DC