Oct. 24, 2007— -- With its snack-food sponsorship, Democratic and Republican affiliations, and Sen. Larry Craig as a possible running mate, Stephen Colbert's run for the presidency is hardly serious business.
But the joke could be on Colbert if federal election officials decide his candidacy is for real.
If his campaign plays out the way he's indicated that it will, Comedy Central and Colbert's sponsor, Doritos, could be violating federal laws that bar corporations from backing political campaigns, election law experts say.
"How serious can you get about running as a joke?" said Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign finances. "The Federal Election Commission doesn't have a great sense of humor."
Federal law bars corporations from contributing to candidates, either through donations or in-kind contributions such as free use of goods or services.
Media organizations are permitted to feature presidential candidates in covering campaigns.
But no precedent exists for a television network promoting and fostering a candidacy of one of its own talk-show hosts, said Lawrence M. Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. And comedian Pat Paulsen's 1968 candidacy predated current campaign finance regulations.
"The real problem comes in the fact that he actually has his own show, talking about his campaign, paid for by a network," Noble said. "These are the kind of things on slow days you'd debate until the late afternoon at the FEC, but there are serious questions that come up. In theory, he could end up having some campaign finance problems."
While he has talked about his candidacy publicly only in character -- as the combative faux-talk-show host who favors "truthiness" on "The Colbert Report" -- Colbert is taking formal steps that are consistent with an actual presidential candidacy.
He has begun collecting signatures to get himself placed on both the Democratic and Republican presidential primary ballots in South Carolina.
And while he has said he's in the race to run, not to win, he has talked about trying to win delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
"I think a lot of people are asking whether -- they say, 'Is this, is this real,' you know?" Colbert said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "And to which I would say to everybody, this is not a dream, OK? You're not going to wake up from this, OK? I'm far realer than Sam Brownback, let me put it that way."
After being alerted to a possible election law violation, he and the network dropped plans to post signature forms on Comedy Central's Web site, and instead created a bare-bones Web site for official campaign activity, www.colbert08.org.
On Thursday's program, he held up what he said was a letter from a Washington election lawyer, and made the legal framework part of his schtick.
"In accepting corporate money, I promise to respect federal election laws the same way I respect the must-shower-before-swimming law at the Y," Colbert said. "As a candidate, I am under no obligation to promote the zesty, robust taste of Doritos brand tortilla chips, regardless of how great a snack they may be for lunchtime, munch time, anytime."
He also said that, because of election laws, Doritos would technically be sponsoring not his candidacy but his program's coverage of his candidacy.
"It's illegal for my crunch money here to pay for the campaign, but it is legal for it to pay for my show, and the show can report on my campaign," he said. "Host: 'Eat them.' Candidate: 'I just happen to like 'em.' "
But even if Doritos has found a way around the ban on corporate donations, that doesn't address the issue of Comedy Central's promotion of a candidacy.
Noble said it would pretty clearly violate the law for the owner of a cable station to decide to give a talk show -- or otherwise hand over editorial control of a program -- to a favored candidate.
Comedy Central representatives did not immediately return calls seeking comment
Noble said that one key threshold for the FEC to consider will be whether he's an actual candidate for federal office. By one definition, a candidate is anyone who has raised or spent at least $5,000 to pursue office, Noble said.
No danger there yet for Colbert. As he put it Thursday, he has raised "zero-point-no-million dollars" for his campaign.
"As a practical matter, I'd think the FEC is going to stay out of it unless he starts soliciting a lot of money," Noble said. "If he was to start soliciting contributions, it could be a lot more serious."
The FEC could consider Colbert's entire campaign satire, which may allow corporate backing under the exemption that allows media organizations to report and comment on candidates as they choose.
But Colbert's continued candidacy makes it more likely that he'll actually have an impact on the election -- which makes him difficult to ignore, Noble said.
"Everybody is very cautious, not wanting to take this too seriously, or to say that campaign finance laws are going to stop satire, or what is clearly a joke," he said. "But he's trying to get on the ballot, and he could in fact affect the election."