(Reuters) - Late night comedian Stephen Colbert has dropped a fat hint that he is exploring a run in the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, although the deadline has passed to get on the ballot.
But that may not be the point. His announcement on Thursday's satirical "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central gave Colbert an avenue for poking fun at how well-funded political action committees, operating at arm's length from a candidate, can spend to support that candidate.
The Republican presidential primary in South Carolina will be held on January 21, and political experts say it could help seal frontrunner Mitt Romney's hold on the nomination.
To a cheering studio audience, Colbert joked on his show that "for over a day now" residents of South Carolina had been "crying out for someone who can restore our nation's former greatness to its current perfection."
"Well America, that someone is now," he said. "I am proud to announce that I am forming an exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for my possible candidacy for the president of the United States of South Carolina."
The deadline to get on the ballot in the Republican primary in South Carolina was November 1, and election officials say write-in candidates are not allowed.
Yet one opinion poll has Colbert receiving the support of 5 percent of likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina, ahead of genuine candidate Jon Huntsman at 4 percent.
"I don't think he's trying to disrupt the primary, but this is satire that he's been doing throughout the campaign by, in his mind, trying to show some of the absurdities of the election law," said Robert Oldendick, executive director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina.
Colbert publicly flirted with the idea of running for U.S. president in 2008 but he never got on the ballot.
'DEFINITELY NOT COORDINATING'
Colbert's announcement on Thursday, complete with falling balloons, came after he and Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," signed paperwork on television to transfer direction of the Colbert Super Political Action Committee (PAC) over to Stewart.
Stewart said he was renaming the group "The Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC."
Super PACs are amped-up PACs that have mushroomed following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that made it easier for entities such as corporations and unions to pour money into campaigns, as long as they do not coordinate with a candidate.
They have long been a target for mockery by Colbert.
"From now on," Colbert told Stewart on Thursday, "I will just have to talk about my plans on my television show and take the risk that you might watch it."
Super PACs have become an important part of the election. In particular, Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich has complained about negative ads from a PAC he said is run by former staff members of Romney.
The PAC that Colbert created appears to be gearing up to get involved in South Carolina. ABC News reported on Friday that the group has begun buying airtime in the state.
But it is too late for Colbert to get on the ballot either in South Carolina or many other states, political experts said.
"If he could get on the ballot in any state, at that point the nomination will be sealed. They won't really have any impact," Oldendick said.
(Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Jill Serjeant)