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And the winner is ... the funnier candidate

Lincoln used humor. So did JFK. Today's contenders should follow suit.

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Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is too busy playing demagogue to stoop to wisecracks. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois consistently emits a vibe of resolute optimism, but his unmitigated earnestness undermines his common-man appeal. The best Senator Obama could do in his November appearance on Saturday Night Live was play himself – and he simply wasn't very funny.

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On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney acts like a well-heeled businessman, mistaking boringness for gravitas. Sen. John McCain of Arizona plays the angry old man – his humor is often mean-spirited rather than likable. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani shows flashes of funniness, but his campaign has become more serious as his poll numbers have plummeted.

Only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, buoyed by his shocking leap to the top of the Republican heap, exhibits charm and wit. Governor Huckabee's appearance on Jay Leno's late-night talk show was a triumph of likability.

What happened to humor in this election? The deep partisan divide that has torn America apart over the last eight years has largely taken humor off the table. We can't joke about the war in Iraq. One-liners about social issues are too raw for broad appeal. No presidential candidate will touch racial issues.

Where, then, should candidates look for humor? The economy.

The first candidate to level humor at the current economic situation could reap substantial dividends. Americans love jokes about money. In 1960, JFK wittily excoriated the Eisenhower economy: "Every bright spot the White House finds in the economy is like the policeman bending over the body in the alley who says cheerfully, 'Two of his wounds are fatal – but the other one's not so bad.' "

In 1980, Reagan won laughs and votes when he stated, "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."

In 1992, Clinton scored points in Georgia when he remarked that handing over the economy to George H.W. Bush was like "hiring General Sherman for fire commissioner."

This election, we are told repeatedly, is about change. The last eight years have been devoid of laughs. Americans are aching for a change on that front. The candidate who shows an authentic sense of humor – not stilted jokes or fake belly laughter – just might find a groundswell of support.

During the 1960 presidential race, JFK's father, Joseph, told him to "get yourself plenty of laughs … keep smiling whenever you take a crack."

Today's candidates would be well advised to do the same.