NEW YORK — If President Barack Obama can spare a moment from such chores as winning re-election, he might find a few chuckles on late-night TV.
Times are tough for Obama, especially when it comes to his approval rating. But things could be worse.
With Election Day 2012 looming one short year from Sunday, Obama's most effective heat shield turns out to be his loyal opposition: Republicans scrapping to unseat him, and getting lampooned for it by late-night TV comics.
The jokes range from blistering to silly to simply sophomoric. But it should be all the same to Obama: They're not targeting him.
Among Republican challengers, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds steady as "the uncontested front-runner for everyone's second choice," in the wry appraisal of "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart. Meanwhile, Romney's rivals scramble to gain an upper hand without falling prey to the next punch line.
In that latter mission, they often stumble as they, not the White House, take the brunt of late-night talk shows' jibes.
On a recent edition of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," Stewart played video sound bites of such GOP contenders as Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
"Did you spot the trend amongst the Republican nominees?" Stewart posed. "As a trained eye, I'll give you a hint," which he voiced in an exaggerated whisper: "They're all saying crazy things!"
On Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," Stephen Colbert noted that, with the NBA lockout, there might not be a basketball season this year. "But if you want to watch millionaires throwing elbows, there's still the Republican presidential race: So many characters, so many twists; it's like a Mexican telenovela that wants to deport itself."
"How about I start tonight with good news," offered TBS host Conan O'Brien in a recent monologue. "KFC has just introduced the new Cheesy Bacon Bowl, which is filled with mashed potatoes, cheese, gravy, chicken and bacon." The Cheesy Bacon Bowl, he went on, is "now the Republican front-runner for President."
For a time, Rick Perry was an actual front-runner.
"Perry says he wants to return America to the good old days," NBC's Jay Leno declared in a "Tonight Show" monologue. "You know, like eight weeks ago, when he was ahead in the polls. THOSE were the good old days!"
And "Late Show" host David Letterman addressed Texas' high death-penalty rate. After Perry went hunting and bagged 12 pheasants, Letterman said, "He killed them with lethal injection." And then he reported that Perry was taking his plunge in the polls bitterly: "Today he executed his pollster."
NBC "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon joked about an interview where Perry "criticized Mitt Romney for flip-flopping on the issues." In response, "Romney said that Perry has no idea what he's talking about. Then he added, 'But he DOES know what he's talking about.'"
On that same theme, CBS' Letterman announced that hookers in Times Square are getting in the swing of the political season. "They will offer you their Mitt Romney special," he said. "For an extra $20, they'll change positions."
Turning to another GOP hopeful, Leno spoke of a trick-or-treater he saw wandering aimlessly, alone and confused, on Halloween night. "I said, 'Who are you supposed to be?' She said, 'Michele Bachmann.'"
Late-night humor isn't all about politics. There's been a feeding frenzy over Kim Kardashian's blink-and-you-missed-it marriage, which this week left in the dust jokes about Lindsay Lohan, Chaz Bono and the McRib sandwich.
Other headlines such as Occupy Wall Street have also been a steady source of humor.
Letterman said there are so many protesters gathered at the lower Manhattan park, the city plans to move them to "that pothole over on 8th Avenue — the same pothole where Simon and Garfunkel had their reunion concert."
Among the many jokes about Moammar Gadhafi's death, O'Brien cited a newspaper report that said the Libyan dictator spent his last days "hovering between defiance and delusion, surviving on rice and pasta."
"In other words," O'Brien summed up, "Gadhafi spent his last days as a sophomore in college."
But largely missing from the late-night monologues right now: jokes targeting Obama, or even Democrats generally.
Things were very different a year ago, when Democrats got what Obama called "a shellacking" in the election, with Republicans capturing the House of Representatives and scoring gains in the Senate. Democrats got a shellacking in late night, too.
"While you were applauding, three more states turned red," Letterman said on his Nov. 2, 2010, election day show. And two nights after the Democrats' crash landing, he joked that "experts are now saying we won't know what happened to the Democratic Party until we find the black box."
But that was then.
This week, attention was diverted by Herman Cain as allegations surfaced from female co-workers that he had sexually harassed them in the workplace. This news was a blessing not only for the rest of the Republican pack (and for Obama on the sidelines), but, of course, for late-night humorists.
Letterman declared that "Cain is the first candidate this year to use the word 'consensual.'"1 comment on this story
"He says he never sexually harassed anyone," Jimmy Kimmel chimed in on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Instead, the former pizza restaurant executive "was just asking them if they wanted extra sausage."
And Fallon took the same tack when he cracked that Cain's new campaign slogan is: "Did somebody order a pizza with extra sausage?"
"So let me sum up the GOP candidates," said Leno. "You've got Mitt Romney kissing ass, you've got Rick Perry getting his ass kicked and Herman Cain grabbing ass."
And you've got President Obama taking welcome cover, however temporary. For the moment, the joke's not on him.