NEW YORK -- When Stephen Colbert introduced the Libertarian Party presidential candidate last night, the audience for "The Colbert Report" cracked up when the studio monitors showed a picture of Babar, the elephant protagonist of children's storybooks.
The host of the popular Comedy Central mock-news program told his audience, "Full disclosure, folks: I myself am a Libertarian. I don't want big government to infringe on my right to tell other people how to think."
Jokes aside, Colbert's interview with the Libertarian nominee, former Rep. Bob Barr (not Babar), was surprisingly respectful. He gave Barr plenty of softball questions and allowed the candidate to answer at length.
Libertarians "are a big swing vote this time because Americans are finally realizing, at long last, that the current two-party system, the Democrats and the Republicans, have failed and failed miserably, and will simply give them more of the same," Barr said.
"A lot of people, particularly a lot of younger people, are completely fed up with the system, they've seen the corruption of the system that has given us bigger government no matter which party's in charge, they see the future as fairly bleak under the current system, and they're ready to vote Libertarian for the first time," said Barr, the four-term Georgia congressman who left the Republicans for the Libertarian Party in 2006.
Barr's mention of younger voters was tailor-made for Colbert's cable-TV audience, which skews young -- more than two-thirds of his half-million or so nightly viewers are under 35. And the Libertarian message has strong appeal to young voters, who are generally less influenced by the Republicans' social-conservative and national-security messages that resonate with older voters.
Barr's trip to New York also included an appearance on Glenn Beck's CNN Headline News program, but the Colbert appearance might be more important. Colbert boasts that his program -- a spin-off of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" -- gives candidates "the Colbert bump," a boost in polling and contributions that has been the subject of an academic study by James Fowler, a University of California political scientist.
Whether or not the "bump" has a scientifically verifiable impact, an appearance on the Colbert show confers a certain legitimacy (and a patina of hipness) to the Barr campaign. Only one major candidate has so far refused to appear on "The Colbert Report," and he is the subject of a placard on the show's set: "McCain '08: The Luck Stops Here."
Sen. John McCain has not yet deigned to notice the challenge posed by the ex-Republican Barr, but much of the media attention to the Libertarian nominee is focused on his potential to cause problems for the GOP candidate.
WHAT KIND OF PROBLEMS could Barr's candidacy create for McCain? Recent polls have shown Barr at 8 percent in Georgia and 6 percent in North Carolina -- states that President Bush won in 2004 with 58 percent and 56 percent, respectively.
In head-to-head matchups with Barack Obama, polls show McCain leading by about 5 points in North Carolina and 14 points in Georgia. Add Barr to the formula, and its 43-40 in North Carolina, 45-35 in Georgia.
If Barr's campaign catches fire, it could "throw a monkey wrench in Republican plans in states people otherwise take for granted as Republican states," pollster Matt Towery told the Washington Times this week.
"It's our plan to do a lot more than to throw a monkey wrench," Barr said in the green room of the Upper West Side theater where the Colbert show is taped. "We aim to make it a three-way race between equals."
Whether or not such high hopes are fulfilled, Barr could expand the number of "battleground" states to include what would otherwise be solid "Red" states. That would force Team McCain to spread thin its campaign resources -- in a year when Democrats are expected to enjoy a significant fundraising advantage.
Win, lose or draw, Barr's clearly enjoying himself these days. "Libertarians do have more fun," he said last night.
Getting "the Colbert bump" could help Barr have the last laugh against his old party.