By Alina Selyukh and Harriet McLeod
WASHINGTON/CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) -
Late-night TV comedian Stephen Colbert is urging his South Carolina fans to cast votes in Saturday's Republican U.S. presidential primary for former candidate Herman Cain, a way Colbert says he will gauge support for his own mock presidential campaign.
Who's not laughing? South Carolina Democrats.
The state's open primary allows Democrats and independents to vote in the Republican primary and Colbert earlier this week called on his home state supporters to cast votes for Cain.
The former pizza executive suspended his campaign in December amid allegations of sexual harassment and infidelity but remains on the ballot. He will deliver the Tea Party movement's response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on January 24.
"They're keeping me off the ballot on the technicality that I'm two-and-a-half months late to file. Fine, split hairs," Colbert said on "The Colbert Report," his TV news parody show on the Comedy Central network.
The unamused state Democratic Party shot back with an email titled "NO to GOP Primary": "The South Carolina Democratic Party ... DOES NOT encourage people to vote in the Republican Presidential Primary."
The pro-Colbert Super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, already has spent $90,000 on advertising in South Carolina, according to its filings with the Federal Election Commission. Political action committees (PACs) are groups with great clout in U.S. politics that are legally separate from candidates.
A statewide poll by the nonpartisan Justice at Stake Campaign found 7 percent of Republican-leaning voters saying they would definitely vote for Colbert in Saturday's primary if his name were on the ballot.
After Colbert called on all to take part in the open primary, his "exploratory" campaign mobilized with Internet outreach and the Super PAC launched a new ad to drum up support for Cain.
The Democrats' concerns are no laughing matter. Voting for Colbert via Cain would stir up the voter files, likely landing Democrats' contacts in Republican fundraising and mailing databases.
Besides, Democrats also are hoping South Carolinians turn out to vote in their own January 28 primary. Double-dipping in the two primaries is not allowed.
"As much as I personally love Stephen Colbert, I think he is a wonderful son of South Carolina, I think it is all for jokes and we're not going to encourage Democrats to participate (in the Republican primary)," said Amanda Loveday, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
The local Republican Party, on the other hand, appears happy to play along.
"I'm enjoying watching it all," South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly said. "I like Stephen. He's a potential donor. ... We'd love to have a huge voter turnout."
Connelly said the party is not making special preparations in expectation of extra voters and was skeptical about translating the tally of Cain votes, which will be counted and reported, into Colbert's success.
"I'm not sure how Stephen is going to separate out the people who vote for Cain because he said so and people who vote because they like Cain," Connelly said.
Cain, for his part, is in the on the joke, scheduled to appear alongside Colbert at his rally "in support of their non-candidacies" in Charleston on Friday.
"Together, these two unique voices will declare that they are the same man," read the press release for the event.
Cain, who commanded headlines for weeks before suspending the campaign, on Thursday announced his official endorsement of "the people" instead of any of the running presidential hopefuls. He called it an "unconventional endorsement of an unconventional candidate."
(Additional reporting by Alexander Cohen; Editing by Marilyn Thompson and Bill Trott)