Who's afraid of Don Imus? Not the Republican front-runner in Iowa, Michael Huckabee, who has agreed to appear on the "Imus in the Morning" radio program, which returns this morning after a nine-month silence.
Presidential candidates in both parties now face a new and unpredictable danger: the rebukes and ridicule of the politically incorrect Mr. Imus, 67, the often foul-mouthed and acid-tongued former Marine who consolidated his radio fame by luring onto the air senior politicians and political journalists willing to risk association with controversy to reach his enormous audience.
How much influence the recalcitrant broadcaster will have on the candidates entering into the final month of campaigning before the Iowa caucuses will depend on how quickly Mr. Imus can recapture his lost form after so long an absence and how many of his regular prominent guests are prepared to resume being associated with him.
In April, he described the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos," an epithet that ensured his dismissal from the New York CBS radio station WFAN and MSNBC, which used to simulcast his show. The incident, which Mr. Imus dismissed as "some idiot comment meant to be amusing," attracted widespread condemnation, not least from some of his regular guests, such as senators Clinton and Obama.
It also raised as a political issue the routine use of racial and sexist remarks by broadcasters and hiphop stars.
Mr. Imus will broadcast for four hours starting at 6 a.m. this morning from the Town Hall on 43rd Street, for which seats have been sold for $100 each in aid of the Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids With Cancer, the charity he founded with his wife, Deirdre, and from tomorrow from a street-level studio across from Madison Square Garden.
The broadcast, syndicated nationally on the ABC Radio Network, will be subject to a 21-second delay so producers can intervene if Mr. Imus's humor becomes too racy.
Some of Mr. Imus's previous guests have already agreed to appear. Today he will be joined by a strategist for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and an informal adviser to Senator Clinton, James Carville. "I defend the speaker, not the speech. If there's no redemption, what are we here for?" Mr. Carville told the New York Observer.
It seems that Mr. Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, also understands the value of redemption — and of publicity. Although there is considerable risk in offending his socially conservative Christian supporters by consorting with Mr. Imus, Mr. Huckabee has hauled himself into the front of the Republican lists by a canny understanding of how to get noticed.
As he has shown from debate performances, Mr. Huckabee, who is slated to give Mr. Imus a telephone interview at 7:30 a.m., has become expert at turning awkward questions to his advantage.
"He's continued to have me on his show when I said stupid things," Mr. Huckabee told USA Today. "What Imus said was wrong, but he seems genuinely sorry. He's certainly not the first celebrity to put his foot in his mouth. And he won't be the last."
Other Republican candidates are expected to follow suit. Mayor Giuliani and Senator McCain, who defended Mr. Imus's right to offend, have both made clear they would be happy to be interviewed by Mr. Imus.
The Democratic candidates may prove more difficult. Senator Dodd thought fit to announce his presidential run on the Imus program in January, but he went on to condemn the broadcaster over the Rutgers remark.
Messrs. Clinton and Obama also rebuked Mr. Imus and are thought to be wary of resuming their link to him. "The comments of Don Imus were divisive, hurtful and offensive to Americans of all backgrounds," Mr. Obama told USA Today. "With a public platform comes a trust. As far as I'm concerned, he violated that trust."
Such lasting resentment sparked a protest in Boston, where WTKK will relay the show. "Boston already has its own challenges around race relations, and we don't need to have an additional flare-up with him bringing that kind of spewed hate and racism and sexism to the fray," the president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, Darnell Williams, told the Associated Press.
Nor have the tempers calmed at Rutgers. "Imus's return to radio exposes … how low the corporate media will sink to make a profit. For students and faculty at Rutgers who organized to get Imus fired from CBS Radio, this is a slap in the face'" a professor of media studies at Rutgers, Deepa Kumar, told the sports columnist Dave Zirin.
Some see the radio rehabilitation of Mr. Imus, a recovering alcohol and cocaine addict, as a useful hook. The Hanley Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, is sponsoring the first week of broadcasts in New York and Boston. "We believe in second chances and are enthusiastically supporting Don's chance to continue his career," the center's CEO, Terry Allen, said in a statement.