Yes, Barack Obama ended up beating John McCain rather easily one year ago, but Stephen Colbert didn't stay in the race for the White House or Obama could have really been in trouble (for a minute or two, anyway). So on this anniversary day, allow me to recall Colbert's tentative entry into the 2008 race and what might-have-been.
Remember, Obama did not start surging until Colbert suddenly pulled out of the race for the White House -- or was booted out. And recall that Colbert ended up pulling out of the primaries despite topping Bill Richardson and closing in on Joe Biden in one national poll. Maybe if he'd stay in it would be Vice President Colbert today.
He had kicked it off 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 awhile 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 him 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% of the vote (28% of the 18-to-29 demo). At E&P we predicted: "If he keeps gaining over 10% 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: You've thought this through.
COLBERT: That's a generous estimation. Thank you.
RUSSERT: The press reaction to your announcement has been mixed. Here's one headline.
RUSSERT: This was on Thursday. "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, S.C. 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 is editor of Editor & Publisher. His book, Why Obama Won, was the first look at the entire 2008 campaign from a progressive perspective.