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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert is running for president of South Carolina. He's not actually on the ballot for tomorrow's primary. It's all part of Colbert's parody of the process, the same way he's parodying cable news. Recently, superPACS have fallen under his satirical scrutiny. NPR arts reporter Neda Ulaby looked into this political practical joke.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: For this I needed to go upstairs and find Peter Overby, NPR's man on campaign finance.

What is a superPAC?

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Welcome to my world. It's nuts. It's the craziest situation in political money that I've seen in something like the 20 years I've been covering this.

ULABY: Peter said for the first time this past year, super political action committees can raise unlimited money to run ads - often attack ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A group of corporate raiders, led by Mitt Romney, more ruthless than Wall Street.

ULABY: That ad was produced by a superPAC run partly by old friends and staff of Newt Gingrich. It twisted facts and embarrassed him. But because of rules forbidding coordination between candidates and superPACS, he couldn't make a phone call to get it off the air. He had to call a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NEWT GINGRICH: I'm calling on the superPAC. I cannot coordinate with them. I cannot communicate directly.

ULABY: It's the SuperPAC rules about coordinating that Stephen Colbert's mocking right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: We're not coordinating.

JON STEWART: Coordinating.

ULABY: That's Stephen Colbert and the guy who runs his superPAC, Jon Stewart, on the phone together with a lawyer they share. Apparently, that's legal. They hired a super lawyer, Trevor Potter, who used to work for John McCain. Now he seems to relish illuminating the absurdly broad loopholes in coordination.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

COLBERT: Trevor, is being business partners a problem?

TREVOR POTTER: Being business partners does not count as coordination, legally.

COLBERT: Great!

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: And when Stewart took over Colbert's superPAC, so it would be totally independent, he wondered...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEWART: Can I legally hire Stephen's current superPAC staff, to produce these ads that will be in no way coordinated with Stephen?

POTTER: Yes.

ULABY: The superPAC, called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, ran ads also attacking Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As head of Bain Capital, he bought companies, carved them up and got rid of what he couldn't use. If Mitt Romney really believes...

MITT ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Then Mitt Romney is a serial killer.

COLBERT: I had nothing to do with that ad.

ULABY: Stephen Colbert with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS INTERVIEW)

COLBERT: I can't tell Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow what to do. It's not my superPAC, George. It's the superPAC of - I hope I'm pronouncing this correctly - Jon Stewart.

ULABY: The ads aired in Charleston, South Carolina, on a TV station run by Rita Littles Scott.

RITA LITTLES SCOTT: We did not know it was Stephen Colbert for a while.

ULABY: She says the ads fit right in. And she says no one has called to complain about them.

SCOTT: In fact, we've not received any phone calls, except from the media.

ULABY: Scott says she appreciates how Colbert and Stewart are exposing the flaws and absurdities in the superPAC system. That's not what another humorist was trying to do, when he ran for governor of Texas a few years ago. Kinky Friedman was trying to win. He lost to Rick Perry.

KINKY FRIEDMAN: My definition of politics - poly means more than one, and ticks are blood-sucking parasites.

ULABY: Friedman said he doesn't really like Stephen Colbert's humor. But he says, at least Colbert's taking risks. So Stephen Colbert has Kinky Freidman's endorsement for president of the United States.

FRIEDMAN: Of course he does. That's why we need Stephen Colbert in there - to stir things up, be a troublemaker. I very much approve of that. That's what Jesus was.

ULABY: An analogy that would doubtless please candidate Stephen Colbert.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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