'08 hopefuls work to find right celeb for events

Last week in a Davenport, Iowa, high school auditorium, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne played to a crowd of students and other folk who seemed to be their parents or grandparents — anyone who had the time to come out on a Monday at noon for a John Edwards fund-raiser.

Before launching into her signature “Thing Called Love,” Raitt told the crowd, “I’m ready for that thing called Edwards love, that’s what I’m ready for.”

It may have been difficult to tell who the crowd showed up for — the musicians or Edwards — but to campaigns, it doesn’t matter.

After the longest, often strangest, race for presidential nominees in history, the campaigns are heating up in the final weeks before voters finally go to the polls — and showbiz is stepping up its stumping. The endless flurry of fund-raising has given way to honest-to-goodness courting of votes.

Iowa holds its caucus on Jan. 3, soon followed by New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina. Those states are key targets as musicians sing, TV stars shake hands and celeb videos pop up everywhere on the Internet.

But there is a delicate casting process to make sure celebrity, candidate and event are in alignment. The pitfalls are apparent: a mismatch or strategic misfire can prove a time-consuming embarrassment for the campaign.

This year, the campaign teams are becoming a little savvier in making the best use of celeb support.

Barack Obama, looking to augment his improved standing in Iowa polls, is hoping to send Oprah Winfrey out on the trail. Last week, he told a supporter at a New Hampshire event that Winfrey would campaign for him in Iowa, according the to Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet. Although a campaign spokesman later said that nothing has been confirmed, there have been hints that Winfrey would stump for him in South Carolina, too.

Mike Huckabee, the GOP darkhorse rising in the polls in Iowa, recently debuted a TV ad in that state featuring Chuck Norris. The spot not only was a satire on Norris’ celebrity kitsch, using some of the martial arts star’s signature lines, but it riffed on the Republican candidates’ drive to prove how tough they are on immigration — Huckabee included. The former Arkansas governor says, “My plan to secure the border: Two words. Chuck. Norris.”

“We wanted to come up with something different that you haven’t seen before,” says Huckabee’s national campaign manager, Chip Saltsman. “It is actually highlighting one of the governor’s greatest strengths — his humor — to highlight an issue that is really important.”

Celebrity support can bring more attention to each campaign and fund-raisers can perhaps charge more money if a star will attend. But politicos have to be careful because many non-city voters are suspicious of showbiz.

And such endorsements and appearances rarely translate into votes.

The campaigns “use them, and they are worth the attendance, but there is no evidence whatsoever that they are worth votes,” says Bruce Gronbeck, professor of communication studies and director of the U. of Iowa Center for Media Studies & Political Culture.

Some believe it may hurt. George Clooney has said that his advice to Obama was, “Look, I’ll give you whatever support you need — including staying completely away from you.” He spoke from experience: When Clooney campaigned for his father’s bid for a Kentucky congressional seat in 2004, opponents characterized the race as “Hollywood vs. the heartland.”

Even with an internationally recognized mega-celeb such as Winfrey, polls are inconclusive about her impact.

Obama’s campaign already has sent such stars as Forest Whitaker, Jasmine Guy, Jeremy Piven and Usher out on the trail. Singer John Legend headlined an Obama rally in Des Moines in November.

“CSI: New York” star Hill Harper, an Iowa native and a classmate of Obama’s at Harvard, plans to campaign again for him in the state with Alfre Woodard in mid-December.

Harper says that, in his Iowa and New Hampshire appearances, he’s careful not to tell people how to vote, or try to speak about issues he doesn’t know enough about.

“You are really just educating people about why you support him,” Harper says, adding that with endorsements in general “maybe it starts to plant a seed that this so-called celebrity traveled all this way here to speak about this person. That sends a signal, consciously or subconsciously, that he or she must really care about this person.”

When Obama visited Los Angeles in October, he met with a group that included Harper, Jamie Foxx, Kal Penn, Sharon Lawrence, Wilmer Valderrama, Laura Prepon, Adam Rodriguez, Johnathon Schaech, Henry Simmons, Kelly Hu, James Van Der Beek and D.B. Woodside. One of the purposes of the gathering was to recruit volunteers to stump in Iowa and to appear in campaign spots.

Edwards also has campaigned with Danny Glover and James Denton, and he made a brief appearance onstage with John Mellencamp at an Iowa concert several weeks ago.

Bill Richardson enlisted “Ugly Betty” star Tony Plana to serve as national spokesman for Mi Familia, an effort to mobilize the Hispanic community.

Merle Haggard has written a song for Hillary Clinton, “Let’s Put a Woman in Charge.” The campaign also has had the aid of Rob Reiner, who made an irreverent instruction video for campaign volunteers. It plays as much as an endorsement of Clinton as it does a self-deprecating riff on his outsized persona (he’s identified as “Rob Reiner: Famous Film Director”).

Clinton also has one of the most valuable celebrity weapons: her husband.

“Wherever Clinton goes, he packs in huge numbers,” Gronbeck says. 

Gronbeck expects that the weeks leading up to the Jan. 3 caucuses will see a flood of famous volunteers to Iowa. In 2004, he recalls, “the last two weeks were just big parties in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.”

Celebrities “draw a crowd, especially in the doldrums of a campaign when people are tired,” says Lara Bergthold, who as deputy political director for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign coordinated his entertainment industry efforts. “Therefore they reach people who may not be reached, out of curiosity if nothing else.”

It’s easier said than done. In the whirlwind of a campaign, and in the typical disarray of a candidate’s organization, it’s an extra challenge to make sure that everyone is in sync. It’s obvious that you don’t send a young actor to an event with seniors. (Josh Hartnett, for instance, campaigned for Kerry to college-age crowds.)

The trouble is working around a celebrity’s schedule, coordinating transportation, and on and on. There are many stars who pledge to help — but far fewer who actually have the time to do it.

“You do try to match the event and the area of the country and the artist,” Bergthold says. “Sometimes that doesn’t even work out. It’s more of a process of matching an availability.”

One of Kerry’s more successful events was when Bruce Springsteen stumped for him in Madison, Wis., in October 2004, drawing by some estimates 80,000 people, including many college students. Kerry narrowly won the state.

While celebrities turned out in droves for the campaign as Election Day approached, Bergthold said that it became a “massive scheduling effort,” one that required a grid to sort out who was going where.

The campaign trail typically is free of the perks that a musician would expect on a tour. When the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl traveled with the Kerry campaign on a post-2004 convention bus trip, he traveled in a 1970s era bus with shag carpeting — they called it the “Peter Frampton bus,” Bergthold recalls.

Another problem is payment: Some performers expect it, even though campaigns are scraping for every dime in the waning days of a race. None of those who stumped for Kerry were paid, Bergthold says, but some campaigns are so hard-pressed to draw a big name that they will dole out the cash.

Such payment has become enough of an issue that TV mogul Michael King sought a ruling through the Federal Election Commission to make it easier to lure celebrities to the stump. The FEC ruled in July that King could donate money to an artist’s favorite charity as a way of getting that performer to hit the campaign trail for free. In other words, the campaign doesn’t have to foot the bill. One of its supporters does.

More problematic is when a performer comes with baggage.

Last month, in an effort to reach churchgoing voters, Obama’s campaign recruited a group of gospel singers to tour South Carolina. Among them was Donnie McClurkin, a Grammy winning artist. But when HuffingtonPost blogger Earl Ofari Hutchinson pointed out some of McClurkin’s past anti-gay statements, gay leaders called on Obama to drop McClurkin. He didn’t, but added an openly gay minister to the tour. The episode has largely blown over, but the campaign spent the better part of a week dealing with the fallout.

It’s also easy for campaigns to expect more than a celebrity can deliver.

Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC, recalls that Muhammad Ali campaigned with President Jimmy Carter in Detroit in the weeks before the 1980 presidential election.

“The Ali image was one of toughness, and Carter was in the last days of the Iran hostage crisis,” says Kaplan, who worked on the campaign and was chief speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale. “It didn’t seem to be a match. In some ways I think the hope was Ali’s ‘bad guy boxer image’ would rectify the way that Carter had been portrayed in the hostage crisis.

“But I don’t think you can use a celebrity to change a candidate’s image. The best you can do is reinforce the image that people already have.”

Given the sheer amount of media covering the races, such instances are subject to added scrutiny or even ridicule. Jon Stewart, interviewing Obama in August, riffed on some of the celebrity campaigning.

“That just doesn’t seem good,” Stewart said. “I still remember Howard Dean in Iowa with Martin Sheen introducing him, quoting an Indian poet to a caucus group of literally AFL-CIO workers and just seeing their faces like this: ‘Huh?’ “

Laughing at the comment, Obama said, “Well, look, you don’t use folks in that way. I think having Oprah’s support is wonderful …But the truth is, in Iowa and New Hampshire, people just want to talk to you. There’s no one who can do that job other than you.”

That’s true, but for candidates struggling for attention, how else do you draw them in?

In July, Chris Dodd campaigned through Iowa with his friend, singer Paul Simon. Dodd’s crowds picked up and he drew more press attention — even if the candidate was well aware of why some people were there.

At a town square in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Dodd stepped onto a makeshift stage and deadpanned, “Hello, I’m Art Garfunkel.”

But Simon was aware of his role in the campaign. He said little, and instead sang some of his standards, including an acoustic rendition of “Mrs. Robinson.” Queried afterward about his own views on the war in Iraq, Simon deferred to Dodd.

“I know how he thinks, and it is very insightful and he has a great deal of wisdom,” Simon said. “I respect it greatly. Otherwise I don’t much believe in entertainers coming out and mixing up in politics. But this is my friend who I have deep regard for. I will go for Chris’ descriptions of the positions.”

Even if Dodd’s numbers didn’t move much, Simon was perhaps the best kind of celebrity on the stump. He knew not to overshadow the candidate.

When celeb stumping really works is when campaigns match persona and politics. For instance, no one will argue that Raitt’s and Browne’s populist images conflict to the themes of the Edwards campaign.

Last year, when Claire McCaskill faced a tight race against Jim Talent for the Missouri senate, she found support from Michael J. Fox, who was impressed in part by her backing of stem cell research. Fox campaigned and filmed an ad for her. It may not have been the issue that tipped the race in McCaskill’s favor, but it highlighted a split she had on the issue with her opponent. Even more attention came when Rush Limbaugh questioned whether Fox was faking his Parkinson’s symptoms, and the radio host was forced to issue a rare apology.

With attention the goal, Huckabee’s Norris ad has already paid off. Traffic tripled on the candidate’s website in the days after it was introduced, Saltsman says, and plans are being made for Norris to go out on the Iowa campaign trail. Time’s Ana Marie Cox called it the “best campaign ad of the cycle.” 

There’s some disagreement as to how effective it will be, that it is perhaps too irreverent for older Iowa caucus-goers.

That kind of overanalyzing is beside the point.

As Huckabee says in the spot, “Chuck Norris doesn’t endorse. He tells America how it’s going to be.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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