Dan Snierson
August 06, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Sometimes they’re forced to drink cow-eye juice. Occasionally they race camels in the desert. All too often they forage for food while stranded on an island. But for this latest crop of reality show contestants, a more daunting task awaits: They’ve got four minutes to deliver a stump speech about the war on terror to a savvy group of citizens in Keene, N.H., and persuade these voters to elect them.

One by one, the hopefuls from Showtime’s political reality series ”American Candidate” — think ”American Idol” meets ”The Amazing Race” meets ”Crossfire” — ascend the stage and address the audience of 300. ”We are in the middle of a fight, and we are not done yet!” trumpets conservative middle-school teacher Park Gillespie. Declares African-American gay-rights activist Keith Boykin: ”The White House said we were going there to find weapons of mass destruction, but instead they were finding weapons of mass distraction!” Lisa Witter, a progressive consultant, is also in full effect: ”Restore moral authority in this great nation! Repeal the Patriot Act! Spend money on priorities here! Vote for me!” ”Candidate” creator R.J. Cutler stands nearby, grinning at his ambitious experiment. ”It is massive, glorious, and entirely uncontrollable,” he says. ”Welcome to democracy, right?”

If ”Candidate,” which debuts Aug. 1 at 9 p.m., isn’t the loftiest reality show ever created, it’s certainly the wonkiest: Ten contestants compete in cross-country political challenges like debating, street politicking, and focus grouping. Every week, one person is cut (”You’re off the ballot,” grimly intones host Montel Williams), and the last one standing gets $200,000 and a TV special to outline his/her platform, which could trigger a presidential write-in campaign this fall. But can a civic-minded cable series featuring sexy guest stars like Howard Dean’s former campaign manager Joe Trippi truly rock the vote? Odds are as slim as a Dennis Kucinich presidential bid. But Cutler, an accomplished political documentarian who produced 1993’s ”The War Room” and 1996’s ”A Perfect Candidate,” thinks this reality TV quest for the next Clinton will be as compelling as the search for the next Clay Aiken. ”Candidates have to battle with the choice between what they believe in and what it takes to win,” he says. ”And winning sometimes means compromising yourself or pulling out the rug from under somebody.” Adds Showtime entertainment president Robert Greenblatt: ”It gets into the reality genre in a way that’s smarter…. We could actually change the world a little bit with this show — more so than ‘Survivor.”’

Among the 10 finalists competing for political immunity: Chrissy Gephardt, the lesbian social-worker daughter of ex-House leader Dick; Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s director of vegan campaigns; James Strock, a conservative author proposing a 50-cent-per-gallon gas tax (if you’ll just let him explain!); Bob Vanech, an L.A. venture capitalist preaching education reform; and Richard Mack, a libertarian Mormon ex-sheriff seeking to decriminalize marijuana. (Asked how he’ll justify this platform to Mormons, he whispers, ”I’m not gonna tell them.”) This combustible cocktail of ideologies leads to bonding (over tax policy) and screaming matches (about selling out during a focus group). ”I was humbled,” says Gephardt. ”The guy I debated last night went to Oxford and Harvard and he was in the [George H.W.] Bush administration!” The amateur politicos may be in awe, but will viewers dismiss this TV contest to find the next free-world leader as an exercise in futility? Trippi, at least, has high expectations: ”I bet you see at least three or four officeholders out of these candidates.”

Speaking of which, after four days of speech spouting and flesh pressing, the remaining candidates in Keene board the campaign bus. Mack notices the driver leaning against the door and chats him up. Afterward, he confides: ”I want him to have a good impression of Richard Mack. He might be well connected to some group I need help with. You never know.” Then he disappears on a bus that’s about to chug down a barely paved road.

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