Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
Richard Mack will appear in "American Candidate," which premieres Sunday.

LOS ANGELES — A lot of reality-television contestants give up normal life for "reality" life. But Richard Mack gave up real politics for fake politics when he abandoned his quest to be governor of Utah to participate in Showtime's "American Candidate" and "run" for president of the United States.

And, several months into the project, he's convinced fake politics can be better than real politics.

"I think the caliber of individual that was on the show is much higher than what you'll see in real life," said Mack, a former Arizona sheriff, an unsuccessful 1998 candidate for Utah County sheriff and one of the throng who was jockeying for position in Utah's GOP gubernatorial race earlier this year.

The Provo man joins nine other hopefuls in "American Candidate," which premieres Sunday on the pay-cable network Showtime.

A cross between political primaries and "Survivor," the show eliminates one candidate each week, and viewers will help make the choice of who wins $200,000 and a chance to address the American people.

"When I got this offer, I never anticipated that I would be selected," Mack said. "And that's why I continued the governor race. And, miraculously, when they called me and said I was selected, I had to make a decision — one bird in the hand or the two governor birds in the bush. And I just thought this was too huge of an opportunity to pass up.

"Right now, I feel that I was absolutely correct in that assessment. And I can always go back to politics. I'm young enough to keep going."

The 10 candidates (six men and four women) were chosen for their differences — different parties, genders, ages and political viewpoints. They include a director for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), a teacher, a former combat nurse, the former chief law-enforcement officer with the Environmental Protection Agency, a venture capitalist and even Dick Gephardt's openly lesbian daughter.

They participate in various challenges each week, beginning with organizing a rally to announce their candidacy. The two who attracted the fewest people to their rallies debate an issue at the end of the show and one is eliminated.

Mack's rally wasn't exactly a resounding success, but it was enough to keep him from the elimination round. "I almost came to Arizona to do the rally," he said. "We almost went back to Safford to do it because I just thought we'd get more excitement in a smaller town.

"We did it in Provo, and I was disappointed in the turnout. We had all sorts of publicity, and then only about 170 people came out, which still left me pretty good in comparison. But I was disappointed."

Similar challenges continue for eight episodes (which have already been taped) at various sites across the country. Viewers get to vote to take three candidates down to two, and then choose the winner.

As with all reality shows, the participants are at the mercy of the producers when it comes to the editing. They never know how they'll be made to appear. "That is my biggest worry, and my wife's also," said Mack, who chose his wife to be his campaign manager. "Our biggest fear every day is — how is this show going to make us look? And I really think it's going to be extremely difficult for the show not to make me look like who I am — a Constitutional conservative. That's how I came to the show, and I'm positive that's how I'm leaving the show."

Mack admits that he's seen very little reality TV, other than a bit of "The Apprentice" — and some episodes of "American Idol" because his daughter Mandy was a contestant on that show. (She made it on TV a couple of times, but didn't make it anywhere near the finals.) "She sang the national anthem at my rally, and if that's not on, I'm going to be mad at 'American Candidate,' because she nailed it."

"American Candidate" producer R.J. Cutler admits he chose Mack for his strong views in two areas — he's against gun control of any kind and he believes that marijuana should be legalized. Some who saw the first episode referred to Mack as "the gun nut."

"If the only thing that comes out of this show is you see me as being a gun nut, then I would consider myself a failure in this process," Mack said. "I'm a much broader person than that. That's certainly one of my issues, but the entire spectrum of freedom issues applies to this. And especially regarding taxation and abolishing the IRS."

That's another issue sure to get him attention. "Freedom cannot survive such a Gestapo organization. So when you come to taxes and education and overspending and corruption in government, and then I come to gun rights."

Well, that and legalizing marijuana. "How many times do you see a former sheriff, a retired cop, a former narcotics officer say to the other people in government, and the other cops, 'We're spinning our wheels. Please let's do something else. Let's realize what we're doing has failed and be honest with our constituents enough to tell them that.' The drug war is a farce and a failure. C'mon guys, let's get serious about this and do something different."

Mack moved to Provo in 1997, following his term as sheriff when he filed suit against the federal government over gun-control legislation and a string of election losses. "After the Brady Bill thing, and after I lost my third election, we just needed a new start."

While Mack made the opposite journey, the producers of the show insist they hope to see their 10 faux politicians turn into real politicians. And Mack admits he's interested in running for governor again — although he's not sure whether that's governor of Utah or of Arizona. And he's looking at other offices, too. "I've had people ask me to come back to Arizona and run against (U.S. Sen. John) McCain, which I might do."

For now, Mack is back in Provo, working on a spy novel, waiting for the show to air and considering his options.

And, like the other candidates, he's anticipating a big reaction to the show, which — given the fact that Showtime is in only about 13 million homes nationwide, and its most popular original programming is seen in considerably fewer homes than that — may be more than a bit optimistic.

"I know a lot of people where I'm from in Arizona and Utah both who are getting really excited about this show," Mack said. "And the people I know, and my constituents, are going to be asking me about this and be confronting me about my views.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com