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Why Mitt’s chat-show dodging may be the right move

Mitt Romney's road to the White House might include the suburbs of Virginia – as CNN is speculating while I write this – but it does not include multiple stops on the late-night talk shows.

Obama's all over TV, Romney is not. One wonders, why? And whose tactic is best?

This is a fascinating sideshow to tactics in the frantic last days of the U.S. presidential campaign. Candidate Obama is ubiquitous on TV. In September, he was on David Letterman's show. Recently, he's been on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, last Wednesday he was on The Tonight Show and on Friday he was on MTV.

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In contrast, Mitt Romney has begun avoiding merrymaking TV. A speech, or two or three of his, will air live on the all-news channels. That's the limit. Romney's last lightweight TV appearance was with his wife Ann on Live with Kelly and Michael in September. He then cancelled an appearance on The View, last appeared on Jay Leno's show in March and has not been on Letterman's show in this election year.

Inside the Letterman empire, this is a fraught issue. It's not merely fodder for humour. Letterman has ranted often about Romney's refusal to appear and said he thinks Romney is "yellow." And then there is the strange matter of Romney's suggestion that Letterman "hates" him for doing The Tonight Show with Jay Leno more often than he's done Letterman's show. That remark was made in the infamous video in which he dismissed 47 per cent of Americans as "dependent upon government." In the same video, he said that Saturday Night Live makes candidates "look unpresidential," and he noted that most of the panel of women who co-host The View are "sharp-tongued" ladies.

He has thought about it. He has decided, and we can conclude that Romney's strategy is to avoid those shows that Obama (and wife Michelle) have embraced.

By consensus, the point of a president or presidential candidate appearing on chat shows is to "humanize" the candidate. To make them less distant, more real and closer to ordinary voters by cracking jokes, telling self-deprecating stories and appearing to be au courant with the popular culture. That, presumably, is what Obama and his team believe has been achieved by doing the rounds of lightweight TV shows.

Romney's tactic of avoidance is intriguing. After a lacklustre start to his campaign, it was television – that first televised debate – that put him back into serious contention. It wasn't that he was humanized by the debate. He seemed presidential after being painted by his opponent and by certain media as a hollow figure, empty of empathy, robotic, rich and lacking in passion.

The tactic now, it seems, is to hold onto the impression created out of the debates. To seem securely presidential. Not likeable, but presidential. A talk-show appearance – whether with Leno or Letterman – is too fraught. It's probably considered way too dangerous a move, one ripe with the possibility that Romney will alienate people by seeming out of touch.

Fair enough. It's possible that Obama is wasting his time on lightweight TV shows. About 90 per cent of American voters have made up their minds. On Leno the other night he was able to talk about the European financial crisis, a topic that went unaired during the debates. But what went viral in the following days was Obama mocking Donald Trump and that is unlikely to sway anyone among that 10 per cent of voters still looking for clues about which way to vote.

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Besides, watching U.S. TV in the last week gives a person the impression that the presidential campaign has reached a level of hysteria and venom that is unmatched. Both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are now filled with livid contempt for the Republican party. There is a hothouse atmosphere generated by a frantic urge to jump on every Republican's utterance about abortion, rape and contraception. That's an easy target, but the focus suggests that there is no longer an ongoing battle of ideas waiting to be mocked by Stewart or Colbert. There is a full-throttle culture war unfolding with the two TV figures featuring as angry combatants.

In this context, the Romney tactic is the right one. He can safely ignore Letterman because an appearance on his show would be far from dinner-party chatter, remote from joshing and gentler needling. Letterman thinks Romney has been "yellow," afraid to appear on his show. Maybe not. Maybe he's been canny about that. His possible path to the White House might indeed necessitate glad-handing in the suburbs of Virginia, but sitting in on a late-night chat show isn't necessary at all.

Airing tonight

Independent Lens: Love Free or Die (PBS, 10 p.m.) is a documentary about Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church in the United States. Calling himself "unashamedly gay, unashamedly Christian," he's at once a warm, cheerful man and, of course, a deeply polarizing figure. Thing is, once the person is revealed here, it is hard to believe that he almost ignited a schism in the Church. The camera follows Robinson as he asserts himself in an international debate about the role of gays and lesbians in Anglican belief. Viewers also see him deliver the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration, which means that in these fraught times, the documentary, like so much on American TV now, cannot be divorced from politics.

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