NEW YORK (AP) - From late-night comedy shows to one-on-one cable news interviews, free media exposure has been unusually influential this election season in defining the Republican presidential candidates and setting the dynamics of the primary race, especially for lower-tier hopefuls lacking cash for TV ads.
The turn toward free media - Twitter, too - may have come at the expense of traditional face-to-face campaigning. It also raises the chances that a moment of fuzzy thinking or a verbal gaffe will haunt a candidate endlessly in the YouTube world.
"The campaigns are using free media as an amplifier and it's smart, especially for those who don't have much money," American University political communications professor Leonard Steinhorn says. "But there's also a reality show quality to it all, with the kind of visual moments people don't forget."
There have been many such moments, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry's cringe-inducing debate gaffe when he forgot the third of three agencies he'd eliminate as president. Or the video of a Wisconsin newspaper editorial board session in which Herman Cain struggled to answer questions about Libya, a stunning display of unpreparedness that helped speed his exit from the race.
Saturday night's candidate debate, hosted by ABC News and The Des Moines Register, has the potential to offer something unique: the high-stakes, real-time drama of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich going toe to toe.
Fox News, long popular with conservative viewers, has been a go-to venue for the GOP field. Six contenders attended a Fox News forum hosted by Mike Huckabee last weekend in which they were grilled on their judicial viewpoints by three Republican state attorneys general. Cain made regular appearances on Fox to defend himself against allegations of sexual impropriety, while his wife, Gloria, did her sole campaign interview with Fox.
The network hasn't always been friendly territory for candidates. On a "Fox News Sunday" appearance last spring, anchor Chris Wallace pointedly asked Michele Bachmann, "Are you a flake?" He later apologized.
Romney was panned for his performance last week in an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier. He appeared agitated and angry when Baier pressed him on contradictory positions he's taken on issues like abortion. "This is an unusual interview," Romney told Baier with a forced laugh.
Sunday morning shows, always influential with opinion leaders, have drawn frequent appearances from the candidates. Romney will appear on Fox News on Dec. 18, his first Sunday show since March 2010. Several contenders are heading to Sunday shows after Saturday's debate. Texas Rep. Ron Paul is set to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press," while Bachmann will be a guest on the CBS show "Face the Nation." Texas Gov. Rick Perry will appear on "Fox News Sunday."
Sunday shows, too, can be dangerous territory.
In a "Meet the Press" interview last May, Gingrich criticized a budget plan crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as "right-wing social engineering" because of its deep cuts to Medicare. He's since apologized for the comment, but it's become a central argument for Romney and other Republicans for why Gingrich shouldn't be the GOP nominee.
Searching for traction, the cash-strapped lower-tier candidates have done numerous local interviews in early voting states. Bachmann and Rick Santorum have appeared on several radio and TV shows in Iowa, while Jon Huntsman has toggled between New Hampshire and Boston shows in his quest to break through in New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary.
Several hopefuls have tried their hand with late-night comedy shows, in part to suggest they can laugh at themselves.
Huntsman yukked it up on "Saturday Night Live" last month, making fun of his low poll numbers and his fixation on New Hampshire.
"I love all of America, from Dallas, Texas, to Manchester, N.H.," Huntsman said to laughs. "From the innovation of Silicon Valley to the affordable outlet malls in North Conway, N.H."
Bachmann's appearance on Jimmy Fallon's late-night show drew controversy when the Roots, the show's popular in-house band, welcomed her onstage with an instrumental riff from a song by the band Fishbone titled "Lyin' Ass B----." Fallon apologized to Bachmann, and the band was reprimanded.
Perry visited David Letterman's "Late Show" in an effort to recover from his infamous debate gaffe. He delivered the show's famed "Top Ten List," this one titled "Rick Perry Excuses." They included: "You try concentrating with Mitt Romney smiling at you. That is one handsome dude."