Rachel Maddow: newest star of TV news -- The Air America host is commandeering campaign conversation on MSNBC with her smart, punchy talk show

So how would Rachel Maddow, TV news’ freshest star, moderate a presidential debate? ”I’d love to see them each explain — or maybe diagram? act out? make a mobile of? — how they chose their [positions on] a political issue,” says the 35-year-old anchor of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show (weeknights, 9 p.m.), with a grin. ”This is probably why no one’s ever asked me to do one of these things.”

This humor has quickly made Maddow (who also has quite serious ideas) one of the most provocative voices in TV journalism. The Air America radio host came to prominence on Countdown With Keith Olbermann, joshing quick-wittedly with the host and jousting with right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan. In September, MSNBC launched her show, a freewheeling mixture of news summary and snappy arguments, which immediately rivaled her CNN competition, Larry King, in the 25-54 demo. Calm in contrast to Olbermann’s rolling boil, Maddow tries to stay above criticism that MSNBC is too loudly liberal. ”My learning curve is so steep getting a show on the air every day,” she says, ”I don’t pay much attention to what’s said about the network.”

Unlikely cohort Buchanan — whom she calls ”Uncle Pat” — is now her regular guest: Maddow, the media’s most visible out lesbian (and onetime San Francisco AIDS activist), says that when the camera’s off, ”we’re friendly. We both like spy novels and British TV shows — nice, neutral points of cultural overlap.” But whomever she takes on during this frantic election windup, Maddow breaks loose of the usual talking points. ”People, especially younger viewers, crave a density of information that doesn’t talk down to [them],” she says. ”We have to be as smart as the audience.” There’s a platform anyone can vote for.