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Oprah and Iowa

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Here, they are calling tomorrow’s Obama-Oprah event the “Oprah-palooza.”

And why not? The New York Daily News: “The Queen of All Media’s first-ever foray into political
campaigning is going to be one for the history and political science
books, testing the limits of celebrity endorsements and setting
primary-season crowd records.”

Or ABC News: “No campaign surrogate — up to and including Bill Clinton and Barbra
Streisand — can do what Oprah is poised to do for a campaign. And
consider that Oprah — unlike the former president — will introduce
voters to her favored candidate who aren’t all that familiar with him
(or all that convinced he’s the right choice).”

The events start in downtown Des Moines, where Obama, his wife Michelle and Oprah will take the stage in the late afternoon in an arena that holds some 11,000 people. The same size crowd is expected Saturday evening, when Obama and Oprah take the campaign to Cedar Rapids. On Sunday it is off to New Hampshire and South Carolina.

As much excitement and media attention as the events will bring, the big unknown is whether Oprah’s magic touch will translate into votes. That is a big leap to make at least in this state, where caucusgoers pride themselves on taking their votes very seriously — a refrain you hear over and over again.  So how likely is it for them to admit that they are casting their vote because it’s a celebrity endorsement? “It doesn’t mean a damn thing,” groused Joe, a twenty-something waiter this afternoon. He’s undecided, but leaning toward Chris Dodd or John Edwards.

That’s why Oprah’s impact may be greater in South Carolina and New Hampshire, where they hold secret-balloting primaries, than Iowa, where they caucus. And even the Obama campaign is tamping down expectations here, with the campaign not making any bold pronouncements of how it will draw votes but rather pointing to Winfrey’s drawing power in recruiting volunteers to the excitement of a campaign.

“This isn’t about star power, it’s about building an organization here,” Obama’s Iowa communications director, Josh Earnest, told the Los Angeles Times.

Tonight I was in Boone, Iowa, listening to Joe Biden give a campaign pitch to about three dozen Democratic voters who crowded into a living room of a beautiful turn-of-the-century home. (And yes, the smell of gingerbread came from the kitchen). The questions centered on Iraq, Iran, the No Child Left Behind Act and the Omaha shooting, not celebrity endorsements.

That’s why it will be interesting to see how much stage time Oprah gets vs. Obama, for as much as she has a proven track record, to overdo it could certainly backfire. It is, after all, about the candidate.

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