NEW YORK -- It was another hectic day on the campaign trail for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. A last-minute Senate vote forced him to cut short 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, 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 former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson break the news of his Republican presidential candidacy to Jay Leno, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York visit a diner with Ellen DeGeneres, her husband swap healthy eating tips with Martha Stewart, and Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, confide in Rachael Ray.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, 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 received perhaps 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."
Presidential candidates have sought to showcase their lighter sides on late-night programs as far back as 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. 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 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 Hillary 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.
But just because the programs are not combative doesn't mean they're not revelatory, television executives argue. "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," said Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development for CBS Television Distribution. "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," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said. "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 Web sites.
Last season, Banks drew an average daily audience of 1.8 million viewers, but a third of those viewers were in the 18-to-34-year-old bracket any campaign would want to reach.
"It's important for us that we're relevant," said Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions, which produces The Tyra Banks Show. "As Tyra's influence grows, she's definitely become more of a force of people listening to her."
Republicans historically have been more reluctant than Democrats to embrace these venues, but their wariness appears to be subsiding, especially when it comes to the major late-night shows. Thompson skipped a debate with his GOP rivals in New Hampshire to officially announce his candidacy on The Tonight Show.
"I'm certainly not disrespecting them, but it's a lot more difficult to get on The Tonight Show than it is to get into a presidential debate," he told Leno.
When Obama visits the late-night show Oct. 17, he will be the ninth presidential candidate on the program this year. That's almost twice as many as have appeared this year on Meet the Press with Leno's NBC colleague, Tim Russert.
It probably helps that Leno pulls in about 5.5 million viewers nightly, compared with 3 million who typically tune in to watch Russert's Sunday morning show. And Winfrey's daytime show has an even bigger reach: Its average audience last season was 7.65 million viewers.
But even entertainment programs with smaller audiences, like The Daily Show with about 1.7 million a night, can offer something traditional newscasts can't: access to younger viewers and sought-after swing voters.
Matea Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Daytime talk shows and late-night comedy programs have emerged this year as essential stamping grounds for those seeking the White House in 2008.