TERENCE SMITH: It's an election year in New Hampshire. The band is tuning up. The campaign bus is rolling. And the weather is sunny, and... 75 degrees?
It's June in the granite state, not frigid January for the first-in-the-nation primary, and a full slate of candidates is here. But it's not only the weather that's different.
These people aren't running for president. They're contestants on the Showtime network's political reality program, "American Candidate."
AMERICAN CANDIDATE CREWMEMBER: All right, guys. You all have a watch.
TERENCE SMITH: The winner receives a $200,000 prize and the opportunity to address the nation for half an hour on Showtime this Sunday evening.
AMERICAN CANDIDATE CONTESTANT: Appreciate your time. Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: The program aspires to loftier goals than the normal reality TV fare, says R.J. Cutler, the show's creator and executive producer.
R.J. CUTLER: One of our goals is to provide a platform for people who don't otherwise have an opportunity to have their voices heard.
On the other hand, one of our goals is to pull the curtain back a little bit and show what goes into running a presidential campaign.
TERENCE SMITH: "American Candidate" is just the latest example of an ongoing and growing trend: The melding of politics and entertainment.
And in this election year, the presidential campaign is itself a story line in a number of productions. The Sundance channel is now airing an updated version of "Tanner '88," the 1988 mock documentary of a fictional run for the White House.
Written by Garry Trudeau, the Pulitzer prizewinning creator of "Doonesbury," and directed by Robert Altman, the man behind "Nashville," "Tanner" is also built around the issues of the day and the realities of running for office.
MICHAEL MOORE: I'm Michael Moore.
TERENCE SMITH: There's Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which has earned in excess of $140 million.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Now watch this drive.
MOVIE CLIP: This is a coup.
TERENCE SMITH: And this summer, the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" brought moviegoers out to see Denzel Washington try to thwart a corporate takeover of the White House.
The transformation of Arnold Schwarzenegger from terminator...
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: I'll be back.
TERENCE SMITH: ...To governor and featured convention speaker...
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: ...Arnold, I'll be back.
TERENCE SMITH: ...provides another example of the blurring of the lines between Hollywood and Washington. Syracuse University Professor Robert Thompson studies the intersection of television and popular culture.
ROBERT THOMPSON: I think the job description of a politician and the job description of an entertainer have an awful lot of overlap. There is a lot of similar skill sets.
It's why you've got people who are very successful as entertainers, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, able to make relatively effortless moves into government, in his case, governor of California.
For whatever else we say, a president of the United States is in fact the star of a four- year-long television series.
AMERICAN CANDIDATE CREWMEMBER: Keep them waving. Keep them going.
TERENCE SMITH: On an idyllic June Saturday, R.J. Cutler, the American candidates, and the crew descended on Keene, New Hampshire, to talk politics and give new meaning to the term "staging a rally."
AMERICAN CANDIDATE CREWMEMBER: And mark. Very quiet. Settle.
TERENCE SMITH: A week after the rally in New Hampshire, the bus rolled into Charlottesville, Virginia, for a town hall meeting at the University of Virginia. Professor Larry Sabato, who heads the center for politics at UVA, was signed up to help out.
LARRY SABATO: Most of politics is entertainment. It's pizzazz and showbiz and media events.
TERENCE SMITH: And there are no bigger political media events than the quadrennial party conventions. Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau brought back their candidate, played by actor Michael Murphy, for "Tanner on Tanner," and a second act at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
BOB DOLE: Hey, Jack. How are you doing?
TERENCE SMITH: In 1988, fictional Michigan Congressman Jack Tanner ran for president amid the backdrop of the real primaries.
He lost, but along the way, exposed the highpoints and indignities of the process. This time, Tanner is back to advise John Kerry and to help his daughter, played by Cynthia Nixon, to make a documentary about his '88 run for office.
There are cameos from Mario Cuomo, Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, and Madeleine Albright, among others. Trudeau says the politicians have grown more accustomed to that role.
GARY TRUDEAU: We're finding a much greater comfort level in having people appear in such a show than in '88.
I think it's considered part of the package now for politicians. It's part of the skill set, an expanding skill set. You have to be able to do well on "Letterman."
TERENCE SMITH: And the candidates this year are finding themselves going back, over and again, to the softer side of television in an attempt to reach certain blocs of voters directly, and to showcase the private side of their public personas.
Professor Thompson says the programs have become a required way station on the long march to the White House.
ROBERT THOMPSON: It is very important for some candidates to make these whistle stops at late night comedies. Get the family-oriented people -- go on Dr. Phil.
Get the female audience -- make an appearance on Oprah. And if you want to get those hard-to-get but got-to-have young male voters, nothing can do that better than Jon Stewart, David Letterman, guys like that.
TERENCE SMITH: Sen. Kerry rode a Harley Davidson into Jay Leno's studio before the primaries, trying to bolster an everyman image.
The senator has taken questions only sparingly from the political press since his convention, but has been all over the dial in recent weeks, from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"...
JON STEWART: Thank you so much for coming to the program.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I'm glad to be here.
JON STEWART: Seriously?
TERENCE SMITH: ...To David Letterman...
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I came here tonight to lower the expectations.
TERENCE SMITH: ...To Regis and Kelly, where the questioning is considerably less intense.
REGIS: How do you stay in shape?
TERENCE SMITH: The president has also begun a slate of appearances. In an appeal to sportsmen, Mr. Bush spent an afternoon fishing on his 1,600-acre Texas ranch with Roland Martin of the Outdoor Life Network, trying to show that he is every fisherman.
ROLAND MARTIN: Did you get one?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No, I did not. Tried to, though.
TERENCE SMITH: And the pop psychologist Dr. Phil recently put both candidates and their wives on the couch.
The questions focused more on surviving teenagers instead of terrorism. Professor Thompson:
ROBERT THOMPSON: On Meet the Press there's a sense that they've really got to be very, very, filled with gravitas. This is a serious business that they're talking about.
When they go on to these comedies, when they go on to things like Oprah or Dr. Phil, they're able to in fact humanize themselves without making themselves look silly in the bargain.
TIM RUSSERT: Mr. President...
TERENCE SMITH: So, from meeting the press to meeting Dr. Phil, voters this year are seeing different sides of the men who would be president.