PERRY ATKINSON, a host on his own talk-radio station in Phoenix, Ore., hit on the idea of running for Congress when GOP Rep. Bob Smith announced his retirement late in 1993.
But then Atkinson had to ask himself whether he'd be stepping up or stepping down.
"Should I stay on the air and reach 10,000 to 20,000 on a daily basis in shaping their thinking and disseminating what I consider true?" he asked. "Could I be relegated to just one of 435 (House members)? I really wrestled with that."
In the end, Atkinson became one of at least seven talk-radio hosts who have turned in their headsets for a chance to tackle the problems they've been talking about for years. All seven who have done so to date are Republicans.
Two women who had been talk-show hosts are seeking the GOP nomination for the Senate, in Michigan and Massachusetts. Part- or full-time hosts of general interest talk shows have also left the airwaves to run for House nominations in two Florida districts and one each in Indiana and Arkansas.
In New York, "shock jock" Howard Stern announced in March that he'll run for governor as a Libertarian, although he has yet to go off the air.
For every talk-radio personality who personally takes the plunge into politics, there are many who make their presence known in other ways. The most famous is conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, whose show has become an advertising magnet for Republican candidates.
Talk radio's political impact has been proved on national issues ranging from the congressional pay raise in 1989 to the nomination of Zoe Baird to be attorney general in 1993. But the distance between issue-oriented talk and a winning candidacy remains substantial. And the two parties disagree, predictably, on the nature and future of the talk phenomenon.
Republicans speak gleefully of finding a cheap, effective way to reach and mobilize like-minded voters, while Democrats say the medium's effectiveness has not been proved in congressional elections.
"I think talk radio is to some extent unchartered waters for politics at a congressional level," says Mike Casey, director of communications for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"There are still important questions to be answered: To what extent do talk shows of a certain ideological bent preach to the converted? To what extent do their audiences act on what they hear on talk …