CHARLESTON, S.C.--How about this as a sign of how strange things have become in the Republican presidential race?
Newt Gingrich, the candidate with all of the momentum in the South Carolina primary, canceled a morning appearance on Friday because of concerns about sparse attendance. But just a few blocks away and a few hours later, comedian Stephen Colbert packed a crowd of more than 3,400 students into the College of Charleston quad – with another thousand or so waiting outside the perimeter -- to see his mock campaign rally with Herman Cain, who suspended his actual campaign in December.
“Mr. Colbert could not get on the ballot,” Cain joked. “I could not get off the ballot.”
In the days before Saturday's primary here, the GOP race has taken on a circus-like aura. Gingrich’s second ex-wife aired her grievances about his affairs on late-night television, as her husband thundered against the media for asking about her comments at Thursday night’s debate. Cain reappeared on the campaign trail to make a much-anticipated endorsement -– not of a candidate, but of “We, the people!” Sarah Palin, the original politician-turned-celebrity, emerged from the political diaspora, on television, to say she would support Gingrich -- just to extend the primary. And on Friday, macho actor Chuck Norris endorsed Gingrich.
Welcome to the freak show.
To conservative opinion leaders watching the spectacle, this is no laughing matter. In fact it’s downright embarrassing. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote on Friday: “We have entered a new phase, the Republican primary as John Grisham novel.”
The absurdities of the trail reached a peak -- or nadir -- when Colbert descended on the College of Charleston campus for what was billed as a "Rock Me Like a Herman Cain South Cain-olina Primary Rally." Colbert, a Charleston native on a somewhat serious crusade against super PACs, has been telling his fans to support Cain (who is on the South Carolina ballot). His “Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC” has produced humorous ads to that effect.
The event was billed as a rally for Colbert, and he got in plenty of digs against Republicans. But it also served as a vehicle to get thousands of unsuspecting, overwhelmingly liberal college students to hear Cain’s conservative rhetoric on the economy. They arrived several hours early to wait in line and get prime viewing spots.
It is hard to believe that Cain, serving as a warm-up act for a comedian who shares no affinity for conservatism, was once leading GOP polls across the country and regarded as a credible contender for the presidency. The post-campaign Cain spent several minutes on Friday singing the Pokemon theme song “I Believe.”
Cain's stump speech drew some applause, as well as mockery, from scattered groups of shouting students. But the college audience showed sign of discontent with President Obama, too. When Cain blasted the Obama administration’s record, he won some lukewarm applause. When he exhorted students to “stay inspired” -- a common talking point of Obama's -– many in the audience chuckled.
Dylan Alford, a sophomore history major, was one of the few attendees who said he is voting in Saturday’s Republican primary. An independent, he hasn’t yet decided whom to support, but he held out the possibility that he could back Cain, even though he’s not running. This was the first political event Alford has been to, he said with a tinge of regret. “It’s a joke how big of a deal this election has become and how ridiculous some of the candidates are,” he said, as he eyed a stage festooned with a faux campaign banner of Colbert and Cain, headlined in over-the-top patriotic print.
For the most part, this was an event mocking Republicans. When Colbert brought up the names of South Carolina’s statewide GOP elected officials -– Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Sen. Jim DeMint -– the crowd booed lustily. And Colbert offered several snarky jibes at Romney that carried more bite than humor.
He had the college gospel choir behind him to mock-sing Romney’s comment that “corporations are people.” And just like a real politician, he repeated a joke about Ron Paul – “If you guess Ron Paul’s real name, he’ll teach you how to spin straw into gold” – that he had debuted on MSNBC’s Morning Joe earlier Friday.
On that show, when asked about the latest allegations from Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne Gingrich, that Newt asked her for the equivalent of an open marriage so he could keep his mistress, Colbert stuck in the knife. “Here’s the thing that I don’t think Newt Gingrich gets enough credit for: A lot of politicians screw around on their wives, but he was enough of a gentleman to ask permission. That’s a Southern gentleman. That’s what Robert E. Lee would have done,” Colbert joked.
Amid all the ridiculing of GOP candidates, one prominent Republican complimented Colbert’s candidacy –- albeit, in a backhanded way.
Asked what he thought about Colbert’s role in the primary process, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney surrogate, said, “I think Stephen Colbert is more qualified to be president than Newt Gingrich.”