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Fey Benefits From Election

These have been the stories shaking the political landscape this season: Tina Fey reduces Sarah Palin to chuckleheaded caricature, and the Republican vice presidential nominee responds by appearing alongside Fey on “Saturday Night Live,” dutifully accepting Alec Baldwin’s compliment that she’s “much hotter in person.”

The cost of Palin’s job-seeking wardrobe is revealed _ $150,000, to date _ and dominates the WednesdayThursday news cycle, just two weeks before actual voting.

Are fancy clothes elitist cultural markers or just a necessary part of the package? And did you see those boots?

Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama prompts speculation, as the election nears, about an ambassadorship and an infomercial or victory-party production role. People wonder more about it hurting Oprah’s ratings with her soccer-mom base than helping the Democratic nominee’s.

And so on.

Granted, there have been other items on the campaign agenda: health care, wars both military and cultural, something about so many billions of dollars and so much high-level misjudgment that it surely can’t be real.

But there’s no denying that pop culture seems to be playing a bigger role this time around than in years past. Yes, Bill Clinton blew the saxophone on TV and Dana Carvey mocked the first President Bush, but the feedback loops are tighter now, from entertainment to mainstream coverage to voter influence.

“It is a lot more profound and more widespread because the information flow is so much greater,” says Jeffrey Ressner, West Coast reporter for Politico.

“Ten, 20, 30 years ago, major newspapers, newsweeklies, TV networks and CNN, that was the bulk of the election news. Today, every outlet, YouTube, TMZ, Entertainment Weekly, it’s all become sort of a horse race/reality show/talent competition, and America is both a viewer and participant.”

It was Politico, a Web site and magazine, that broke the story Wednesday of the McCain campaign allegedly spending more than $150,000 on clothes for Palin and her family, a story about pop culture (fashion) that also hints at hypocrisy, an insensitivity, to borrow a cultural stereotype, to Joe Six-pack. After first refusing comment, the campaign said it always intended for the clothes to go to charity after the election.

Even without anyone seeing her price tags, Palin had been hit by the “Tina Fey effect,” seen as hurting the McCain-Palin ticket by 33 percent of independents in a recent Washington Times poll. Just 9 percent said it was helping.

Certainly, the postconvention bump the Republican ticket got disappeared as people got to know Palin better, in part through television news interviews and Fey’s portrayal.

And what people don’t watch on “SNL” or YouTube or Hulu, the mainstream press and the political blogs happily replay the clips.

Palin running mate, John McCain, famously compared Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in summertime attack ads, but Palin is just as much a media superstar, a ratings and page-view magnet. Showing Fey as Palin allows news outlets to sidle up to commentary without having to shed their own objectivity.

“People sense that what comes out of the campaigns is sort of propaganda, and I think people are looking for something that looks closer to the truth to them,” says Lorne Michaels, whose “Saturday Night Live” has used the election to generate some of its highest buzz since the days of John Belushi.

“I think there’s a sense of urgency now,” he adds.

That’s why you’ve seen many of the comic talk shows so worked up.

There’s a special venom, I would argue, toward McCain from the likes of David Letterman and Jon Stewart because they feel used, not just in McCain canceling a “Letterman” appearance Sept. 24, but in the bigger picture.

The senator from Arizona spent many years as a frequent, amiable and, yes, borderline maverick guest on the shows. Now when the stakes are highest, the hosts see a different person. That’s why when McCain finally returned to the “Letterman” set last week, his admission that “I screwed up” was barely accepted, and the host went straight to tough questions, more Edward R. Murrow than Ed Sullivan.

Watching the discomfort, you had to work to remember that in early 2007, McCain had announced his presidential bid on Letterman’s “Late Show.”

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