How late night comedy became another stop on the campaign trail

GWEN IFILL: We may still be a whole year out from the presidential election here, but to hear one candidate tell it, the scrutiny has never been higher.

And while one GOP front-runner took issue with the media, the other took center stage on the comedy circuit.

And that's where we begin this Politics Monday.

DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate: So, why are you hosting Saturday Night Live? Why? And the answer is, I have really nothing better to do.

GWEN IFILL: Donald Trump is by no means the first politician to use late-night comedy to make his or her case. They're everywhere this year, day and night, dancing with Ellen, sparring with Stephen, yukking it up with Jimmy.

JIMMY FALLON, Host, The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon: Congratulations. You're speaking to Donald Trump.

GWEN IFILL: Washington Post reporter Elahe Izadi says the ability to showcase a sense of humor has become a campaign essential, as important as delivering a policy speech.

ELAHE IZADI, The Washington Post: This is now part of just being on the campaign trail. This isn't just something that is an extra. This is part of what it means to be a national political candidate, for better or for worse, is to have the willingness to go on these shows and allow yourself to be made fun of and also just appear very, very silly.

GWEN IFILL: The tradition stretches back decades. John F. Kennedy showed up on Jack Paar's "Tonight Show" in 1960. In 1968, two months before Richard Nixon was elected president, he memorably appeared on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."

RICHARD NIXON, Presidential Candidate: Sock it to me?

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: And, in 1992, Bill Clinton slipped on dark glasses and a saxophone for a visit to Arsenio Hall's late-night show.

But President Obama became the first sitting president to take to the couch when he visited Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" in 2009. Such appearances almost always stir objection, some of it about questioning the candidate's dignity, much of it from other candidates seeking equal time.

Immigration activists took it up a notch at Rockefeller Center this weekend, offering a reward for anyone who would disrupt Trump's "SNL" appearance. In the end, they settled for protesting offstage, outside the studio.

And we turn now, as always, to Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR.

GWEN IFILL: So, as we look at this, laughing, some of it funny, some of it not so much, who's winning these comedy wars, Amy?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Well, I think that you set it up quite well in the piece, which is, the point is to make these people who spend most of their time in very contrived situations look natural and normal, like this is just your best friend talking to you.

And each of them has a different reason to go do these shows. If you're one of the candidates that doesn't get a whole lot of attention, here is a chance to get in front of a new audience that might not have paid any attention to you.

But for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, two of the best known candidates, if you look at the polling, they have one thing in common. And that is voters think they're not likable or easy-going. So what better way to do it than go on one of these shows?

GWEN IFILL: Is it working?

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: It's free media. That's for sure.

And Hillary Clinton's campaign after she went on "SNL," the next day or a couple of days later, there was an event, and at the event they were blasting that skit up onto the screen in a loop. They liked it. At one point, she told somebody in the audience, well, you can call me Val.

There is this idea in campaigns that voters are likely to vote for the person who they would like to have a beer with. Well, one way to look like you would be someone fun to have a beer with is to show up on late-night TV as a bartender or…

GWEN IFILL: I have never understood how that works with the presidency. But that's a different conversation.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: I want to talk now about scrutiny, because we have had a couple of major candidates, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio, who came under heightened scrutiny because of things they have said, things they have done in their past.

And I wonder whether it feels different or this is the way it always is? Before you answer that question, let's listen to what Ben Carson had to say about this whole issue.

AMY WALTER: Yes.

BEN CARSON, Republican Presidential Candidate: There's no question I'm getting special scrutiny, because there are lot of people who are very threatened, and then they have seen the recent head-to-head polling against Hillary and how well I do. And they are worried.

And the whole point is to distract.

GWEN IFILL: And he insists he's being scrutinized like no one ever has.

AMY WALTER: No one has ever been under this level of scrutiny — I don't know. I have spent a little time watching other campaigns. This is very typical.

That's the thing about this election. There's stuff about this election that we have never seen before and doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But, as I have been talking about throughout this year, at some point, the laws of the road, the political rules of the road start to apply.

And one of those is, the higher up you go in the process, the longer you're the front-runner, the more scrutiny you're going to get. There is absolutely nothing new about this. And the problem for Ben Carson is, his autobiography is his campaign.

So, of course that's the place where the scrutiny is going to be the most significant. It also doesn't help him that he doesn't have any real specific policy objectives. So, if he wants to talk about policy, that's great. Then he has got to get more specific about those policies.

GWEN IFILL: Marco Rubio knew what was coming, which is that people were going to use — raise questions about his handling of party-issued credit cards in Florida when he was speaker of the Florida House. And he came prepared with an answer.

TAMARA KEITH: Marco Rubio is running a very professional campaign.

Here's a candidate who did some opponent research on himself, did the opposition research, knew what was coming, and had an answer, and, in fact, made this credit card thing sort of part of his overall narrative, which is, I wasn't a rich guy, I was living paycheck to paycheck, just like everybody else.

He really just blended it in with the story of Marco Rubio. And I think that he played it well. And in some ways, he's inoculating themselves. This comes out now. He isn't even a front-runner at this point. It comes out now.

GWEN IFILL: It will just seem like old news.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

TAMARA KEITH: And it will seem like old news. And, in fact, it sort of is old news, because it came out in his 2010 Senate race.

GWEN IFILL: And it should be said, both of them have been on e-mail raising money.

AMY WALTER: Raising money off of this.

TAMARA KEITH: Oh, yes.

AMY WALTER: And it's always…

GWEN IFILL: The media is after me.

AMY WALTER: And, as you said, there is something about the scrutiny, that it happens every single election. So is the attack on the media: Give me money because the media is unfairly maligning me.

TAMARA KEITH: And Ben Carson said that, in just last week, while the media was going after him, he raised $3.5 million from 10,000 people.

GWEN IFILL: Throw me in the briar patch, right? It's like, oh, this is so terrible what you're doing to me.

(LAUGHTER)

AMY WALTER: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: The perils of front-runner-itis.

Let's talk about the Democrats for a while, because one of the interesting things we're seeing happening with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in particular is daylight is happening — is opening between these two candidates, who promised — at least he had promised that he wasn't really interested in attacking Hillary Clinton.

AMY WALTER: I still don't think he's interested in attacking Hillary Clinton.

GWEN IFILL: Really?

AMY WALTER: No, I mean, when you see him go on the offense, it's still very light. And it's still very much about, listen, I'm just going to put myself out here. I leave it for you to judge whether or not Hillary Clinton's been as consistent.

And, look, to Hillary Clinton's credit, she keeps moving further and further on to Bernie Sanders' terrain and moving further and further to the left. He's not giving her easy openings. What he has to make is the argument that she's not been consistent in her support, as opposed to she doesn't support certain issues.

TAMARA KEITH: Yes. He seems to be making the argument that: I was right all along. I was right first.

He doesn't say her name. And he doesn't actually see this as an attack. He sees this as fair game, drawing a contrast.

GWEN IFILL: Comparison, yes.

TAMARA KEITH: Comparison. He thinks that's completely fair.

I think that his campaign would like him to push harder, but he's just not quite as comfortable with it. And Hillary Clinton has really no need to overtly go on the attack against Bernie Sanders.

GWEN IFILL: Only a few seconds left.

We have got another debate, yet another debate tomorrow night. What are you watching for?

AMY WALTER: Let's see about the Ben Carson scrutiny and where we go with that. He's certainly going to be much — it's much more of a focus.

GWEN IFILL: And Donald Trump has certainly been going out of his way to remind everybody of what all the questions are.

TAMARA KEITH: Yes. And all eyes on Marco Rubio. Will he have another strong performance in this debate?

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Well, we will be watching, or something. I will let you watch and tell me all about it.

(LAUGHTER)

AMY WALTER: The next time we see you, yes.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, thank you very much.

TAMARA KEITH: Thanks.