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Old 01-17-2006, 01:10 PM   #1
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Conan O'Brien - A new home for Finland.

HELSINKI, Finland (AP) -- Finland's president finds her traditional support among women and the Social Democratic Party base, but lately to the surprise of many Finns -- and her opponents in Sunday's election -- she has gotten an endorsement of a different sort.

The redheaded late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien has been promoting President Tarja Halonen's re-election bid as part of a long-running joke about their supposed physical similarities.

"Why do I support Tarja Halonen? Because she's got the total package: a dynamic personality, a quick mind, and most importantly -- my good looks," the comedian, whose show is broadcast on cable in Finland, said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Halonen earned a victory in the first round of the presidential election Sunday, but with 46.3 percent of the vote, she faces a run-off on January 29 against former Finance Minister Sauli Niinisto, a conservative candidate, for a final six-year term.

Whether O'Brien has a real interest in Finnish politics is uncertain, but his gags and mock campaign ads for Halonen have not gone unnoticed in this Nordic country of 5.2 million.

"Late Night with Conan O'Brien" airs five days a week on SUBTV, a Finnish cable channel, with a few days' delay. Every time he mentions Finland or Halonen, local tabloids report it prominently.

The Halonen camp is laughing all the way to the polls.

"Of course, when she is mentioned so many times it's positive for our campaign," said Halonen's campaign manager, Markku Jaaskelainen.

Halonen's supporters quickly saw an opportunity, and her campaign started running real ads before the O'Brien's show on Finnish TV.

Halonen was hugely popular even before O'Brien discovered their similarities, but Jaaskelainen said hits on the campaign Web site have quintupled partly because of O'Brien's shows.

In one show, O'Brien presented a mock ad for Halonen in which he and two Finns were discussing the election while fishing on a frozen lake.

When they talk about rival candidate Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, a dead fish shoots out of the hole in the ice, prompting a joke about how the mere mention of his name causes fish to commit suicide.

"Fish recognize a bad leader," O'Brien says in broken Finnish to laughter from his studio crowd.

Halonen's opponents are not amused.

"He's just making fun of the whole election," said Harri Jaskari, campaign manager for Niinisto. "If this decides the election, then we're in trouble. It gives a very poor picture of Finnish democracy."

Markus Haapamaki, Vanhanen's campaign manager, was less worried.

"It's not really affecting our campaign," he said. "Personally, I'm fed up with it, and it's continued too long to offer anything interesting."

In Helsinki, people did not seem to take offense at O'Brien's use of their presidential election for comic relief.

"I think it's quite funny," said Mia Myllymaki, a 28-year-old elementary school teacher. "Of course we are proud that Conan O'Brien talks about Finland and Finnish people. ... People in the USA don't even know where Finland is, so maybe it helps if he talks about it."

Anu Linnus, a 22-year-old economics student, said O'Brien's backing could indirectly affect the election.

"I don't think people are going to vote for Tarja because she's on the show, but it helps her image," she said.

NBC, which runs Conan's show in the United States, said the popular host is planning a trip to Finland in February. It was not clear whether he would meet with Halonen, 62, who apparently does not mind being compared to the 42-year-old O'Brien.

"She thinks that it's very nice that she looks the same as Conan O'Brien because Conan O'Brien is so much younger than she," said Jaaskelainen, the campaign manager.

As for their similarities, he was not as convinced.

"They have red hair," Jaaskelainen said. "And same kind of nose."

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