The Late Night Primary: Palin/Leno vs. Romney/Letterman

Thanks to the miracle of DVR and the scourge of procrastination, I was able to catch the simultaneous appearances on competing late night talk shows last night by two former governors who will likely be competing for the Republican presidential nomination in two years’ time.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was in New York on The Late Show with David Letterman, while former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was in Los Angeles for Jay Leno’s what’s-old-is-new-again Tonight Show.  I didn’t take notes or anything and, frankly, I wasn’t expecting to get into too much depth–schoolwork is choking off the little free time I have right now–but I couldn’t help but briefly share the impressions I got from both appearances.

I watched Romney and Letterman in real time and, as much as I do like Mitt Romney, to be honest I wasn’t expecting much from him in Letterman’s chair.  Letterman, of course, is bitterly partisan and much more plugged in to news and debate than he lets on, and in my opinion Romney’s greatest weakness is his inability to tell a joke — a necessity when sparring with Dave on political matters.

Romney’s lack of comedic prowess was on full display at CPAC a little more than a week ago, when his awkwardly delivered opening jokes caused an otherwise fantastic speech to start off a little more roughly than necessary.  And then, of course, there’s no forgetting this Mitt Romney classic from the 2008 presidential campaign, second in awkwardness only to Joe Biden asking a wheelchair-bound state lawmaker to stand up and be recognized:

I’ve been saying for a long time now that besides the realities of RomneyCare in Massachusetts as they relate to the health care reform debate currently gripping the nation, Romney’s biggest hurdle going into a successful 2012 presidential run will be his likability, how effectively he’s able to resonate with the people as an everyman.  A decent showing on Letterman’s show, I thought, would be a barometer of sorts showing just how far he had to go.

As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised by his appearance.  On the serious side, I think he explained well the challenges facing American automakers, health care as an extra-market industry, and some of the causes which led to our economic downturn.  On the not-so-serious side, his funnier moments were delivered naturally rather than in the contrived manner we’ve seen in speeches.  His seemingly improvised “he took a swat at me … and he broke my hair” line in reference to a tussle he had with a Los Angeles-based rapper on a flight leaving Vancouver a few weeks ago was enough for a hearty laugh.

On the other side of the country was Sarah Palin, whom I expected would be fairly comfortable conversing casually with the much less partisan Jay Leno.  As it turns out, though, Palin–dressed a bit schizophrenically in jeans, heels and a black blazer–seemed to have to be prodded for terse answers at first by Leno, who was quizzing her about negative media attention and other things she has surely spoken about dozens and dozens of times.

By the time the next segment began and Leno asked Palin about the tea parties, she loosened up and gave a fantastic assessment of what the movement is, where it’s going, and why it’s become so prominent.  Romney’s answer to a similar question by Letterman seemed a little more tentative.  As the interview went on, Palin offered more than just terse, specific answers to Leno’s questions, though she seemed to steer clear of policy matters more than did Romney on the opposite coast.  Her line about tax cuts fostering economic and job growth by allowing small business owners to keep more of their own money received what sounded like a genuinely loud and spontaneous roar from the crowd, as opposed to the likely products of an “applause” sign which punctuated earlier portions of the interview.

Then, she delivered a stand-up routine.  Really.  Like Carrot Top, only without the props.  And, as campy as it may have been, she did nicely.

All in all, in the grand scheme of things, will last night’s appearances by Palin and Romney matter?  Likely not.  Even the infinitely stiff Al Gore delivered some funny moments alongside David Letterman and Jay Leno during his time as Bill Clinton’s vice president.  Still, the dueling bookings provided an opportunity to see both outside of the traditional speaker or pundit roles in which we’ve become so accustomed to seeing them.

To me, when I look at the strengths and weaknesses of Palin and Romney together, I see two people who compliment each other very nicely.  I’ve always considered Romney to be an eminently capable and qualified turnaround guy who sincerely knows how to get this nation back on track but has difficulty selling his ideas to an American people with whom he cannot adequately relate, whereas I’ve seen Palin as a remarkably marketable politician the likes of which we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan, but someone who needs to work harder to add more depth to her ideas.

As Palin expands her knowledge through daily briefings and learning more and more about domestic and foreign policy, and as Romney genuinely works on being more genuine and more of an everyman, we could see a pair of great candidates, rife with executive experience and looking to mount a tough challenge to not only other Republicans in the primary but to an incumbent Barack Obama in the general election as well.

Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin may have been doing the late night comedy circuit last night, but to liberals staring down a double barrel of destruction in 2010 and 2012, the educations of these two conservatives should be no laughing matter.



  1. Anonymous says:

    Americas number one tax cheat takes a leave of absence…..
    good riddance Charlie!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hopefully the beach chair photo will be reappearing in a story on Charlie.

  3. PP says:

    Why haven’t we seen more of Bobby Jindal? Did the one bad outing shut him up forever?

  4. Anonymous says:

    PP, someone has an audio tape of him saying “You Betcha”.

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