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Softer Shows Hard on McCain

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008; 10:03 AM

The presidential candidates have made it through a two-year media maze that at times dwelled on cleavage, cackling, Paris Hilton, lipstick, haircuts, houses, preachers, pregnancy, flag pins, witchcraft, designer wardrobes and Joe Wurzelbacher.

As they head toward tomorrow's verdict, Barack Obama, John McCain and their running mates have survived hundreds of interviews, from Sunday morning grillings to Sarah Palin's close encounters with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson.

But daytime and late-night shows have been an underrated factor in this campaign, and an undeniable advantage for Obama. Ellen DeGeneres, David Letterman and panelists on "The View" all confronted McCain, while Obama has basically joked and danced his way through such appearances, including a "Daily Show" stint last week in which Jon Stewart asked him about "the whole socialism/Marxist thing." If anyone doubts there is a liberal entertainment establishment, it has been vividly on display.

What's different this year is that the softer shows have often made hard news, perhaps out of a desire to be taken more seriously, or at least to generate headlines.

"We had a greater impact than any daytime show has ever had on an election," says Bill Geddie, executive producer of "The View." "Daytime is about keeping it light, keeping it fun, and we said, 'Let's go the other way. Let's talk about real stuff.' "

McCain seemed to enjoy making a final pitch on "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend with Tina Fey reprising her role as his running mate. But it hasn't all been fair-and-balanced territory. "Anyone can watch the shows and see how Barack Obama and John McCain were treated and see the contrast. It's as plain as day," McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb says.

The Democratic nominee's campaign doesn't minimize the importance of such programs. "We make every effort to meet and talk to voters where they are, and that's not just targeting the evening newscasts," spokesman Bill Burton says. "Barack Obama is one guy all the time, whether he's talking to Brian Williams or Tyra Banks."

Phil Singer, a former spokesman for Hillary Rodham Clinton, says the chat shows are a key weapon in the communications arsenal. "Before each primary election day, we'd try to schedule her on as many of these shows as possible," he says. "You'd try to get her on the Letterman show or 'Access Hollywood.' It gave people a chance to see a different side of her. We were at a financial disadvantage, and these shows command huge audiences."

It was considered daring -- some even said unpresidential -- when Bill Clinton played the sax for Arsenio Hall and schmoozed with Larry King during the 1992 campaign. Now working that circuit is as mandatory as gobbling corn dogs at county fairs.

When Obama appeared on "Ellen" 10 days ago, the host challenged him: "Michelle was on the show, and she was talking some smack about your moves." The senator from Illinois responded, "I am a better dancer than John McCain."

But when McCain was a guest last spring, DeGeneres chided him on the issue of gay marriage, saying, "It just seems like there is this old way of thinking that we are not all the same." McCain awkwardly responded that "we just have a disagreement" and wished her "every happiness." Both McCain and Obama oppose gay marriage to varying degrees.

The contrast was equally striking on "The View." When Obama chatted up the ladies in March, ABC newswoman Barbara Walters told him: "Maybe we shouldn't say this. We thought you were very sexy."


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