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Donald Trump, Jeb Bush: Do politicians still have reason to fear Stephen Colbert?

Donald Trump, Jeb Bush: Do politicians still have reason to fear Stephen Colbert?
Stephen Colbert talks with Jeb Bush during the premiere episode of "The Late Show" on Sept. 8. (Jeffrey R. Staab / Associated Press)

Back in his Comedy Central days, Stephen Colbert acquired a reputation: Sometimes politicians would go on his show and wind up getting hurt -- or at least looking silly.

So what does it mean now that Colbert has taken over as host of CBS' "The Late Show," premiering Tuesday night? Will he still skewer the pompous and the confused, as he did to fans' delight on "The Colbert Report"? Or will his new CBS slot force him to go tame?

From the evidence on Tuesday's show, it looks as though the politicians still have reason to fear.

GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, struggling in the polls, turned up for an interview that did nothing to dispel rival Donald Trump's withering put-down that Bush is "low-energy." Even before Tuesday's show, Bush and Colbert were involved in a weird online meta-feud over the fate of a promotional ticket to Tuesday's show, which set the stage for their eventual meeting.

When Colbert asked whether Bush would do anything about a political world that has become "blood sport," Bush answered with a vague appeal: "We have to restore a degree of civility." He also (gently) criticized his brother, former President George W. Bush, for not reining in Republican spending during his final years in the White House.

The host ribbed Bush after the former Florida governor drew only lukewarm applause with an attack line on President Obama (who doesn't have "bad intentions" but is just wrong about almost everything, according to Bush).

Worst of all was when Colbert started on Bush's much-ridiculed campaign slogan, "Jeb!"

"It connotes excitement," Bush explained, as Colbert and his audience burst into laughter.

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Colbert was most in his element, though, when making fun of Trump, the brash real-estate tycoon and reality TV star who has become the unlikely Republican front-runner.

"I will be covering all the presidential candidates who are Donald Trump," Colbert assured his studio audience.

After he played news video of Trump inviting a woman at a speech to touch the top of his head, Colbert cracked that Trump had proved that what was on top of his head was real but that "now it's up to science to decide whether or not it's hair."

On the other hand, nothing on the first Colbert show for CBS was anywhere near as scathing as Colbert's notorious 2006 White House Correspondents' Assn. dinner address, in which he pilloried the Bush administration ... as the president sat nearby.

And the Colbert fear was bipartisan. Rahm Emanuel, then chairman of the Democratic caucus in the House, reportedly warned his fellow party members in 2007 to steer clear of "The Colbert Report," in which the host played a conservative blowhard TV star in love with himself.

Will those days of "truthiness" -- a buzzword Colbert popularized -- return? Time will tell. But Colbert said he has already made a big change for his arrival on broadcast TV.

"I used to be play a conservative narcissistic talk show host," he informed Jeb Bush on Tuesday. "Now I'm just a narcissist."

What did you think of Colbert's first "Late Show"?

Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT

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