When it comes to televised political stunts, Dina Ibrahim thought she had seen it all. But that was before the eve of the Pennsylvania primary, when presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain delivered videotaped messages to wrestling fans watching "WWE Raw" on the USA Network.
Yes, a professional wrestling show.
"You can call me HillRod," Clinton said, unveiling a new, ready-to-rumble nickname.
"Do you smell what Barack is cooking?" Obama asked the grappling devotees.
"Whatcha gonna do when John McCain and all his McCainiacs run wild on you?" the Republican nominee snarled.
Watching in amused disbelief, Ibrahim, a professor of broadcast television at San Francisco State, practically fell off her couch.
"That's when I thought, 'Oh my god, can you believe this? What is this country coming to?'" she said. "That one really surprised me."
Since Richard Nixon blurted, "Sock it to me?!" on "Laugh-In" in 1968, politicians have used TV entertainment programs as a means to reveal a different side of themselves. And when Bill Clinton played his saxophone for Arsenio Hall in 1992, it blew open the door to a world of possibilities.
During this bitterly contested electoral season, the candidates and their families are taking to the airwaves in new and offbeat ways. On Monday night, for example, Hillary Rodham Clinton turned stand-up comedian to present the popular "Top 10 List" on "Late Show with David Letterman" — a gig Obama handled just a few days before. "My first act as president," he promised, "will be to stop the fighting between Lauren and Heidi on 'The Hills.'"
But that's just a small taste of the pop-cult nature of this year's race to the White House. Last week, Obama and his wife, Michelle, appeared on the daytime chat-fest hosted by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, where they talked not about the war in Iraq, but how they make time for each other during a hectic campaign. (They have a family night, a game night and a date night together when he's home.)
Meanwhile, McCain's wife, Cindy, has co-hosted an installment of "The View." Clinton has mocked herself not only on "Saturday Night Live," but "The Colbert Report." And all the candidates repeatedly have clowned around on the late-night TV circuit, including Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
Apparently not wanting to be left out, President Bush even appeared in a pre-taped segment for the game show "Deal or No Deal," which raises the question: Is there any TV program today's politicians won't do?
"If that's where the eyeballs are, that's where you have to be," Ibrahim said. "They need to find a way to coax people out of their shells to participate (in the electoral process). In a way, you have to admire their tenacity. It's not classy or elegant, but it can be effective."
Several factors are fueling the trend, experts say. For one, the exorbitant cost of a presidential campaign makes these free appearances enticing. And in an intensely competitive race, the hopefuls need to connect with everyone they can, including the hard-to-reach 18- to 34-year-olds who generally spurn traditional news shows. Moreover, the modern television landscape is so fragmented that candidates must be willing to delve into the nooks and crannies of the medium.
"You really have to branch out. There is no one fix," said Gary Davis, spokesman for the WWE, which had playfully invited Obama and Clinton to settle their differences in the ring. "You can't just count on the evening newscasts and the cable news channels to effectively get out your message."
Indeed, audiences for the nightly network newscasts have steadily declined in recent years and are largely made up of older viewers. So to reach younger people, it's essential to play on their turf.
"It's all about demographics," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State. "The candidates are going after a new and different voter. The campaigns look at who watches these shows and determines if those are the people they need to reach. It's not rocket science."
While some critics regard the pop TV craze as a dumbing down of the presidential race, O'Connor believes it does hold value.
"Sometimes, these TV appearances can serve as a little window into who they are as people. They humanize them," she said. "And people do tend to vote for someone they like or would like to be like."
But beware the pitfalls. As Time magazine pop-culture columnist James Poniewozik pointed out, there are built-in limits to how much fun a candidate can have with his or her image, and "the line between joke and gaffe is too treacherous." Meanwhile, in a recent issue of TV Guide, NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd warned that people seeking escapism in their TV viewing may be turned off. "At what point do the candidates look like they're intruding?" he said.
Don't expect them to back off any time soon. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, despite sizable advances by the Internet, television is still where the majority of people — 60 percent — get their news about the presidential election.
"Like it or not, television is where it's at," Ibrahim said. "In the end, you hope (the offbeat TV gigs) inspire people to get involved and vote, instead of just sitting there giggling and waiting for the next wrestling match."