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Political odd couples make for insights in PBS' 'Contenders'

PBS' "The Contenders" pairs 16 modern presidential campaigns to explore their legacies

Political odd couples make for insights in PBS' 'Contenders'

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Shirley Chisholm memorably billed herself as "unbought and unbossed" when she ran for president in 1972. John McCain's forthright message to voters was lettered on his 2000 campaign bus and an airplane eight years later: Straight Talk Express.

Their independence is what lands them in the first episode of an intriguing new PBS series about modern presidential campaigns, "The Contenders: 16 for '16."

Each hour-long episode of the series, debuting 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday (check local listings) and airing through Nov. 1, examines two White House hopefuls who, whether they won or lost, left a mark on future races. The approach often makes for political odd couples, with host Carlos Watson teasing out the shared elements of their campaigns.

Watson promises "The Contenders" will offer useful perspective on what he calls this year's interesting if "confusing" race.

The other candidates included are Howard Dean and Pat Buchanan (Sept. 20); Mitt Romney and Michael Dukakis (Sept. 27); Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson (Oct. 4); Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan (Oct. 11); Ross Perot and Ralph Nader (Oct. 18); Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin (Oct. 25) and George W. Bush and Barack Obama (Nov. 1).

Besides the politicians, their supporters and family, there are interviews with high-profile campaign managers including Karl Rove, Steve Schmidt and Susan Estrich -- who is back in the news as former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes' attorney.

Watson said the series took inspiration from a project about another kind of fierce competition, ESPN's "30 for 30" about great sports moments. A goal of "The Contenders" is to help illuminate the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by detailing for voters, especially younger ones who didn't experience other campaigns firsthand, what came before.

"The Contenders" shows that "it's not the first time a businessman has run, that it's not the first time we've seen an 'America first' campaign, it's not the first time that someone who doesn't inspire a lot of passion and popularity still can end up winning the office," Watson said.

It's also packed with the kind of insider tidbits that can make a political junkie get all tingly or open the eyes of a novice observer.

Example: Estrich, who ran Michael Dukakis' 1988 race, recounts a startling call from the plane carrying him to a full schedule of campaign appearances. The message: Dukakis was canceling the trip because he wanted to tend to his job as Massachusetts governor, which he had promised voters he would put ahead of the race.

"The Contenders" kicks off with a look at the late Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first to seek the presidency.

The Democrat is seen in a film clip chiding politicians who flip "from one side to another" and insisting that people want them to be honest and have at least "a tiny bit of morality." Initial enthusiasm for her campaign from feminists, African-Americans and others eroded because they didn't believe a black woman had a chance of winning, her supporters recall.

The episode's second half is devoted to McCain, a Vietnam War hero, Republican congressman and U.S. senator who faced his own headwinds when he vied for the Oval Office. In his first campaign, he blasted activists on the left -- Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton -- and the right -- Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson -- as "agents of intolerance."

In the program, Watson asks McCain how criticizing prominent conservative figures affected his run for office.

"Well, I don't think it helped," McCain replies, dryly. But he felt compelled to paint some of their claims about what makes a proper Republican as outside the "big tent party" of Reagan and Lincoln, he added.

Talking to reporters this summer, Watson predicted that a record 150 million Americans will vote and that will include many supposedly disaffected millennials. Dean was asked later if he agreed with the turnout assessment.

"This is a crazy year with one of the most unpredictable people that ever ran for office," said the former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chair. "Anything could happen."




Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at and on Twitter at