By Mark Egan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's election led many political pundits to predict the popularity of American satirist Jon Stewart would wane. After all, mocking Republicans was his bread and butter.
But two years later with the nation just days away from an election expected to shift the balance of power in Washington, Stewart and his Comedy Central stable mate Stephen Colbert are growing ever more successful.
On Saturday, the pair mount their most audacious stunt -- rallies on Washington's National Mall. Stewart's is a "Rally to Restore Sanity," while Colbert, whose show mocks conservative punditry, holds a rival "March to Keep Fear Alive."
Organizers haven't disclosed what exactly the rallies will be, but they will no doubt build on Stewart's huge following for "The Daily Show," which typically features the comedian commenting on the day's news in a faux anchor format and conducting interviews with top newsmakers.
"We all thought he would have less fun after (President George W.) Bush left office but that's not been the case," said Michael Musto, a culture writer at New York's Village Voice.
"There are still plenty of Republicans to poke fun at, and Obama's ratings are so low that he can now poke fun at Obama and the Democrats too," said Musto. "It's twice as much fun."
Experts say the explosion of Internet news, opinion and blogs and the 24-hour cable television news cycle have created a cacophony of shouting pundits. That, they say, allows Stewart to poke fun at overheated rhetoric on both sides.
Media and Society Professor Richard Wald of New York's Columbia University said Stewart is evocative of Will Rogers, known for such cutting satire as: "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat."
U.S. entertainment, from Bob Hope in early radio days to "Saturday Night Live" and late night TV hosts Johnny Carson and David Letterman, has satirized politicians, albeit in a gentle tone associated with conservative U.S. broadcasting standards.
Where Stewart is different, said Wald, is he places politics squarely at the center of all his comedy, and new forms of communications help him spread his laughs.
"Stewart's edge is that he not only has cable TV ... but YouTube and Twitter and the Internet, so that he gets to reach an ever wider audience," Wald said.
Stewart's stature is certainly high this week. On Wednesday not only did Obama become the first sitting commander-in-chief to be interviewed on his show, but the comedian was named in a poll as more influential than the U.S. president.
"MOST TRUSTED MAN IN AMERICA"
Stewart topped a poll of the "most influential men" of the year conducted by AskMen.com, ahead of Microsoft's Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Obama came 21st.
The web site called his show "our youths' most trusted source of information and its host the most trusted man in America."
Such is Stewart's influence that The New York Times wrote that Obama's appearance, seeking votes for Democrats who are expected to suffer big losses in Tuesday's congressional election, raised the question: "Whether a political satirist loses credibility when hobnobbing with the president."
Stewart's Daily Show is watched by about 3.6 million U.S. viewers per episode, Comedy Central said. Crucial to his value to advertisers, that audience includes 2.2 million viewers in the sought-after 18-49 age range.
By comparison, the most popular cable TV news show by a large margin is the Fox News' show "The O'Reilly Factor," with 4 million viewers.
The average Daily Show episode is also streamed online almost 225,000 times, Comedy Central said.
The Obama appearance this week drew just over 2.8 million viewers, according to the Neilson ratings.
The Daily Show began in 1996 as a pop culture satire hosted by Craig Kilborn. Stewart took over as host in 1999, and its audience grew as he shifted its focus to politics.
Stewart has broadened his celebrity, hosting the Oscars twice and writing best-selling books -- 2004's "America (the Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction," a mock school history book, and "Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race," published in September.
Organizers have declined to estimate what crowd Stewart and Colbert might draw at their rallies this weekend, but many youngsters seem intrigued.
"I love him, and love this show," said Tahlia Selby, 19, a college student in New York. "If I could go to his rally and Colbert's in Washington, I probably would."
But while Stewart is certainly popular with younger Americans, his context is not all lost.
"I like him because he's rather funny," said Juliana Hein, 23, a human resources consultant in New York. "But people take him too seriously and forget he's just a comedian."
(Additional reporting by Bernd Debusmann Jr and Jill Serjeant in Los Angeles; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton)