Oprah on Obama trail

Winfrey to campaign with presidential hopeful

Finally, the Oprah effect will be put to the test.

After months of rumors that she would do so, Oprah Winfrey will campaign with Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, on Dec. 8 in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Obama’s campaign announced on Monday. The next day, she will stump for the candidate in Manchester, N.H., and Columbia, S.C. Details of the events will be released in the next few days.

Iowa holds its caucus on Jan. 3, followed by New Hampshire on Jan. 8 and South Carolina on Jan. 26.

Winfrey’s appearance on the campaign trail had been anticipated ever since September, when she hosted a fund-raiser for Obama at her Montecito estate. That event raised more than $3 million for the campaign.

While the campaign stops in the early voting states are certain to draw large crowds and a crush of media, it’s uncertain whether Winfrey can deliver not just publicity and money but actual votes.

The hopes on the campaign are that her audience of women, particularly those not otherwise politically inclined, will be inspired to vote, and to vote for Obama.

Although showbiz endorsements don’t usually make much of an impact, Winfrey is no mere celebrity: She’s a worldwide media figure who has never stepped into partisan politics before.

Polling on Winfrey’s impact so far is inconclusive, and some commentators wonder whether Obama even needs her in the first place, given that one of his major hurdles is experience. With Obama’s position already improving in Iowa, Time’s Mark Halperin wrote on Monday, “American voters are not looking for a celebrity or talkshow sidekick to lead them. Obama is an intelligent and thoughtful potential president, but Winfrey’s imprimatur is unlikely to convey those traits to many undecided voters.”

But some of Obama’s supporters believe that the mere fact that she’s never endorsed a candidate before gives her an extra dose of credibility — and therefore more will listen to her. In other words, Winfrey believes enough in Obama that she is willing to risk turning off segments of her fanbase.

Obama himself told the New York Times recently, “She says she wants to do something, which I was actually surprised by. But I think it’s interesting to her.”

“CSI: NY” star Hill Harper, a classmate of Obama’s who has been campaigning for him in Iowa, called her “courageous” for doing so. “I applaud Oprah for what she is doing,” he said last week.

A native of Iowa, Harper cautions against giving the hard sell and telling the notoriously independent-minded voters in the state who to vote for. “You are really just educating people about why you support him,” he said.

It will be interesting to see what Winfrey says and how she says it. Last spring, when she announced her endorsement of Obama on Larry King’s TV show, she was quick to also praise his chief rival, Hillary Clinton. But that was then, this is now. The nomination race has gotten a bit more caustic.

So expect just as much focus on Oprah as on the candidate himself.

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