As if sinking poll numbers and political attacks weren't enough, the McCain-Palin ticket has been taking it on the chin from late-night comics.
They've provided a rich vein of material — lipstick on pigs, bridges to nowhere, expensive wardrobes, seeing Russia over the horizon and simply McCain's white hair. Yet the degree to which the Republicans have been the butt of jokes this fall, compared to Barack Obama, is astonishing.
From Sept. 1 through Friday, the Republicans were the target of 475 jokes by Jay Leno and David Letterman alone. The Democratic team of Obama and Joe Biden were the victim 69 times, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which has been tracking such data since 1988. That's nearly a 7-to-1 ratio.
In no other campaign over the last 20 years has one party's ticket been jabbed more than the other by even a 2-to-1 ratio, said Robert Lichter, a George Mason University professor and head of the center.
Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have a similar imbalance. The center doesn't even consider Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson and others — including the season's breakout comedy star, Tina Fey imitating Sarah Palin.
"Critics are wondering, what happened to the old John McCain?" Colbert said. "Wait a minute. There's an older John McCain?"
Craig Ferguson of CBS' "Late Late Show": "At this point, it's a race to see what drops faster — the stock market or John McCain's poll numbers."
Letterman: "John McCain said he's going to win (the third presidential debate). Of course, he also told Custer the surge was working."
Leno: "According to a recent poll, 61 percent of people surveyed said they'd rather see Sarah Palin in a bikini than Pamela Anderson. Although 99 percent said they'd rather see Pamela Anderson as vice president."
And so on.
There's no question it has hurt the Republican campaign, said Keith Appell, a GOP media strategist for CRC Public Relations. He'll grant that McCain and Palin have provided material, but Appell said Democratic gaffes are virtually ignored.
Certainly, little was made of Biden's must-have-missed-that-day-in-history-class comment that "Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television" when the stock market crashed in October 1929 — even though Herbert Hoover was in office and there was no television.
Comic D.L. Hughley, who began a comedy show on CNN last weekend, believes there's a hesitation among white comedy writing staffs and late-night hosts to joke about a black candidate. Fearing a slip into something considered offensive, some comics are conservative.
He jokes about how it might be for a white man to be the first to lose a campaign for president to a black — "that's got to look bad at the country club." Hughley, who's black, delivers the joke easily for a laugh but wonders whether white comics would even think of such a line or say it.
Some of the Obama-directed jokes clearly stay safe: "In an interview, Barack Obama forgot which wedding anniversary he celebrates this year," Ferguson said. "Michelle Obama just changed their slogan to "yes you can ... sleep on the couch."
Obama has also been relatively bland during the campaign, more difficult to caricature, Hughley said.
"If you only depended on the Obama-Biden ticket for jokes, you'd go out of business," Lichter said. "There's nothing there."
On HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" Friday, the host joked — or was he joking? — that Obama shouldn't be so near perfect, since comics will then have fallow ground to reap.
Hughley's CNN debut was a rarity: He had more jokes about Obama. One was about Obama's 173 cholesterol level — Hughley said he doesn't know any black man with a number that low. He thinks comedy humanizes people, and if Obama is elected president, the late-night comics better get used to joking about him.
McCain's decision to skip a David Letterman appearance during the brief suspension of his campaign was a disastrous move, about which the candidate later said, "I screwed up." Letterman brutalized him in its wake; in two months, he's cracked 280 jokes about McCain-Palin and 17 about the Democratic team.
Arguably, Letterman's relentless hammering contributed to many in the public believing that the campaign suspension was a bad idea, adding to the campaign's image problems.
During September, Stewart and Colbert joked about McCain and Palin 211 times, versus 29 for the Democratic ticket. Lichter doesn't have October numbers for Comedy Central, but they weren't likely to change much.
People don't stay up to watch the late-night comics as much as they used to. But with digital video recorders and video clips distributed on the Internet, they may make up for that lack of live audience — and more.
Since being chosen as the GOP vice presidential candidate, Palin has been a comic's dream. She was the target of 77 more jokes than McCain by Leno and Letterman the last two months; not even Dan Quayle could outpace the top of his ticket, Lichter said.