Stephen Colbert is much more than a comedy sensation. The growing “Colbert Nation” is also a sign of our times, and especially a sign of the desperation felt by many Americans and observers of U.S. politics.

Colbert, 43, is the host of the popular Colbert Report on Comedy Central. He recently announced his intention to run for President in 2008. After hinting at a bid for the highest office, Colbert conveniently timed his announcement to coincide with the release of his new book, I Am America (And So Can You!).

On his October 16 broadcast, the comedian declared his intention to run as both a Democrat and a Republican, but only in his home state of South Carolina. Within days, aided no doubt by plenty of media coverage, Colbert’s supposed candidacies were getting serious attention.

A Facebook group, 1 000 000 Strong For Stephen T Colbert, was quickly established, and it soon became the fastest growing such group. It reached its target number in record time and will soon be the largest group on Facebook.

Far from just signing up young people in Facebook-land, Colbert has become a factor in the “real” presidential race as well. A credible telephone survey, for instance, found that if the Democratic and Republican candidates were front-runners Hilary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, 13% of people would cast a ballot for Colbert. This would seem to already make the comedian the most significant third candidate in the race since Ross Perot brought out his pointer, graphs and charts.

All the major contenders in the Democratic Party race, which many see as the real presidential sweepstakes, have made reference to Colbert in recent weeks. In fact, no one can afford to avoid the “Colbert factor” any more. They almost have to mention it just to demonstrate their savvy and knowledge of the show’s popularity.

For instance, John Edwards’ official campaign blog responded to some teasing by Colbert that the candidate had “abandoned” South Carolina when he was a toddler: “Edwards was born in South Carolina, learned to walk in South Carolina, learned to talk to in South Carolina, and will kick Stephen Colbert’s New York City butt in South Carolina.”

The Edwards campaign worked hard to show its sense of humour by “attacking” the comedian’s shameless promotion of Doritos chips, adding, “Colbert’s hands are stained by corporate corruption and nacho cheese. John Edwards has never taken a dime from salty food lobbyists and America deserves a President who isn’t in the pocket of the snack food special interests.”

Barack Obama, unable to pick up ground on Hilary Clinton of late, instead took aim at Colbert earlier this week. Obama said in a live forum, “I didnâe(TM)t realize he was from South Carolina. I can’t picture Stephen Colbert eating grits.”

Finally, even Hilary has brought up Colbert. While campaigning in New Hampshire in early October, she said, “To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, that great philosopher, this administration doesn’t make decisions based on facts, it makes facts based on decisions.”

Clinton and company might do well to look in the mirror to understand where the whole Colbert-mania came from. While Democrats like her voted for the war in Iraq, or offered only token opposition, it was left to comedians like Colbert and Jon Stewart to channel the anger felt by millions of Americans. It was, remember, Colbert’s roast of George Bush in 2006 that firmly established his massive popularity.

Perhaps Stephen Colbert will help the Democrats find their backbones. If not, he really may have to run in ’08, and not just in South Carolina.