WASHINGTON – What if Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth (search), villain of "The Apprentice," tried to scheme her way into the White House?
Or reigning "American Idol" champ Fantasia Barrino (search) gave up her singing career to take on George W. Bush?
R.J. Cutler, producer of "American Candidate," (search) hopes he has an Omarosa or Fantasia among the 12 people chosen to compete on the reality TV show. It premieres Aug. 1 on Showtime.
Each week, the candidates will be judged on their completion of a specific challenge meant to show viewers the insides of a presidential campaign, such as holding a campaign rally or participating in a debate. Week by week, contestants will be eliminated; the last candidate standing wins $200,000 and "a nationwide media appearance after the show" to promote his or her platform, according to the program's Web site.
One goal of the 10-episode series, Cutler says, is to illuminate the political process and engage viewers who don't usually get involved.
Actual politicos are guiding the contestants through the steps of a campaign. Rich Bond, a former Republican National Committee (search) chairman and a consultant on the series, sees the show as "yet another way to goose the system to get more people involved."
During a recently filmed segment, the candidates created a 60-second commercial after getting a primer from Carter Eskew, a veteran Democratic consultant, on the finer points of ad-making.
"Political ads are best when the candidate has a clear sense of passion," Eskew told the candidates. "Ads are clearly an attempt for you to get your message out there -- unfiltered."
The tutorial over, the candidates retreated to separate offices, where they worked with a consultant of their choosing to write a script, sift through stock videos and choose a location to film.
In one room, Matt Bennett, Wesley Clark's former communications director, huddled over a desk. "You need to put some daylight between yourself and the others," he told contestant Bruce Friedrich. "You can't be too circumspect."
Next door, Erik Potholm, who has done ads for House and Senate candidates, counseled Park Gillespie on the footage he should use and where to film -- either at the Lincoln or Jefferson memorial. "I think the Lincoln will give you more options," Potholm said.
After the planning session, the candidates and their consultants hit the monuments to shoot their ads. "I want you to have a conversation with me," Democratic media consultant Morgan Young told contestant Lisa Witter. "A little bit more of a smile."
The 60-second ads were shown to focus groups, who ultimately decided which candidates would advance in the competition.
The candidates say the consultants make the race as close to reality as possible. "It's great to be around these great political minds who have run real campaigns and who have given real discourse on the process," said Chrissy Gephardt (search), daughter of former real-life candidate Dick Gephardt (search).
Contestant Malia Lazu said the consultants make the show work. "I come from grass-roots politics and we don't have the money for those kinds of people," she said. "Working with them, that's when it feels real."
Cutler, who directed "The War Room," (search) a documentary on the 1992 Clinton campaign, said the consultants "make this as real an experience as possible."
Eskew, Al Gore's strategist in his presidential campaign four years ago, said he was skeptical at first and joined the show simply to have some fun. The consultants are paid a modest honorarium.
"Look, we had some fun in 2000, but we could probably count those days on one hand. The thing that's fun about this is -- and this is kind of corny -- that it's nice to see people who are passionate about what they're doing. It's also nice for me not to live and die on how they do."
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said, "I love it more than anything else I'm doing" because of the commitment of the candidates. However, he added: "It confirms my desire to stay out of electoral politics. I don't envy what these candidates do. And I admire them more because of it."