The political and media world is abuzz today over news that Stephen Colbert may throw his hat in the ring as a write-in candidate in next week’s primary in his native South Carolina and beyond. This came after a poll found him edging Jon Huntsman 5 percent to 4 percent. Two nights ago on the Colbert Report, the host took note of that and promised an “important announcement” on Thursday. The world quaked. Remember, he has formed his own, well-financed (with donations) Super Pac and already had some fun using the dough.
Last night, in a brilliant -- and very educational move -- he announced that he was forming an exploratory committee  for a race for president, but he had one problem: that Super PAC. About the only restriction they bring is the candidate can not consult with its managers. So Colbert on the air signed over control of the PAC to ... Jon Stewart! Of course, he promised not to consult with him at all. His expert lawyer testified that this was perfectly legal. The PAC may start spending for ads in South Carolina right away.
Even if his candidacy does not happen, Colbert has already provided a real "teaching moment" for millions of viewers.
Well, most may have forgotten but Stephen has been down this road before. In fact, my book on the 2008 campaign , Why Obama Won, kicks off with the riotous episode. This was pre-PAC, but still made a mockery of things.
He had started the excitement during an appearance on Larry King’s show in October 2007 to promote his new book, I Am America (And So Can You). The Comedy Central star was accused by the host of using the book as a platform to run for president. Colbert happily confirmed this, saying that he would likely seek the nomination from both parties. When King said this was a “cop out,” Colbert said that it actually demonstrated true “courage” because “I could lose twice.”
Likely he would launch his grassroots crusade in his native state, South Carolina, as a “favorite son.” Colbert refused to knock any of his competitors, but did allow that Fred Thompson’s campaign slogan should be, “Do Not Disturb.” He pointed out that Mike Huckabee had already offered him the veep spot if the former Arkansas governor got the GOP nomination.
Soon, a major South Carolina public TV station offered Colbert airtime to officially announce his candidacy. The Colbert bump kept growing when, on October 14, Maureen Dowd turned over her New York Times column to him for the day. Colbert revealed, “While my hat is not presently in the ring, I should also point out that it is not on my head. So where’s that hat?”
Keeping nothing under his missing hat, he went on to describe his platform. On gender: “The sooner we accept the basic differences between men and women, the sooner we can stop arguing about it and start having sex.” On race: “While skin and race are often synonymous, skin cleansing is good, race cleansing is bad.” On the elderly: “They look like lizards.”
And finally: “I don’t intend to tease you for weeks the way Newt Gingrich did, saying that if his supporters raised $30 million, he would run for president. I would run for $15 million. Cash. Nevertheless, I am not ready to announce yet—even though it’s clear that the voters are desperate for a white, male, middle-aged, Jesus-trumpeting alternative.”
Two nights later, after nearly a solid week of dropping hints, Colbert did find, and throw, his hat in the ring. On his own show, The Colbert Report, with balloons falling, he screamed, “Yes, I’m doing it!” Then he welcomed CBS political analyst Jeff Greenfield to analyze his impact on the race “in the past three minutes.”
Greenfield said it was “astounding.”
Colbert took out one of the “Colbert/Stewart 2008” bumper stickers that have circulated for a while and cut out the Stewart part, saying that he might replace Jon Stewart as a possible vice president with someone named “Huckabee” or even “Putin.” To finance his campaign, he threatened to sell advertising patches on his suit, like a NASCAR driver.
Questions quickly rose about his ballot status in South Carolina but the situation there appeared murky. Stewart signed a contract extension for his Daily Show, explaining, “I love doing this show.… I look forward to using this extension to having great fun at President Colbert’s expense.”
Stephen, in fact, was already threatening to overtake the lesser-rans on the Democratic side. The Public Opinion Strategies national poll in mid-October found him drawing 2.3 percent in the Democratic race. This put his ahead of Richardson (2.1 percent) and Dennis Kucininch (2.1). He trailed Biden by just a tad (the future Veep polled 2.7 percent).
A week later a Rasmussen poll showed that his surge was continuing. In a projected three-way context against frontrunner Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani he was pulling 13 percent of the vote (28 percent of the 18-to-29 demo). At E&P we predicted: “If he keeps gaining over 10 percent a week, Colbert should be leading the field before November is out.”
Meanwhile, a Facebook group titled “1,000,000 Strong For Stephen T. Colbert” had attracted more than 880,000 members in just over a week— making it the most popular political group on Facebook by far. And that was before he, improbably, appeared on Meet the Press with Tim Russert on October 21. From the transcript:
RUSSERT: The press reaction to your announcement has been mixed. Here’s one headline… “Electile Dysfunction: Colbert Running For President.”
COLBERT: That’s good work. That’s good work.
RUSSERT: Are they, are they questioning, shall we say, your stamina?
COLBERT: I don’t know. I think a lot of people are asking whether— they say is this, is this real, you know? And to which I would say to everybody, this is not a dream, OK? You’re not going to wake up from this, OK? I’m, I’m, I’m far realer than Sam Brownback, let me put it that way.
RUSSERT: Would you consider Senator Larry Craig as your running mate?
COLBERT: I would.
RUSSERT: Have you had conversations with him?
COLBERT: Define conversation.
RUSSERT: Have you spoken to him?
COLBERT: No, no.
RUSSERT: Have you met with him? Have you been in the same room together?
COLBERT: Sorry, my lawyer’s telling me to say no more.
Colbert visited Columbia, South Carolina, and received the key to the city from the mayor on “Stephen Colbert Day.” The local newspaper, The State, published a side-by-side comparison of its two native son candidates, Colbert and John Edwards. The latter’s hair was described as “naturally fluffy” while Colbert’s was “very stiff.” Colbert, perhaps angered by that, was quoted saying of his opponent: “John Edwards left South Carolina when he was 1 year old. He had his chance. Saying his parents moved him—that’s the easy answer.”
But just as momentum was building uncontrollably in early November, the state’s Democratic party ruled that he was not “viable” enough to be awarded a spot on the ballot. Colbert was reduced to citing—and showing on the screen—an article in E&P to prove that he was, indeed, not merely a joke candidate for president. The audience roared its approval of E&P as potential kingmaker.
Too bad, he said, he wouldn’t get a chance to run, waving a thick file of papers—he had an exit strategy for Iraq all mapped out.
Greg Mitchell’s Why Obama Won  is published in both print and e-book editions. His award-winning book on Upton SInclair’s race for governor of California in 1934, leading one of the country’s greatest mass movements— which sparked the birth of the modern politcal campaign— has just appeared in new print and e-book editions.