Celebrity associations haven't helped Romney

If President Obama is the “celebrity president,” then Mitt Romney has become the “Celebrity Apprentice” candidate.

A Republican group already attacked Obama for singing with Ellen and slow-jamming on Fallon; in the past week, the Obama campaign has returned the favor by tarring Romney with the outlandish birther comments of reality host Donald Trump, daring the candidate to repudiate them as John McCain did in the last election, and then subliminally tying the knot tighter between Trump and the already compassion-challenged Romney by quickly slipping in an image of Trump uttering his signature TV catchphrase “You’re fired” at the end of the spot.

Celebrities aren’t just surrogates in this caustic campaign cycle, they are weapons. The propensity of Republicans to link their rivals to the Hollywood liberal elite has been met by Democrats pointing not just to Romney’s association with the Donald, but to his support from a flying-off-the-handle Ted Nugent. The Obama campaign also seems ready to mention another Romney endorsement from a potentially loose-cannon celeb — Kid Rock.

It’s not much of a surprise that either campaign would leap at the chance to publicly take offense at any outrageous comment of a celebrity surrogate — or even those with a tenuous connection to the candidate. What is a bit more unusual is the extent to which the campaigns have not hesitated to embrace celebrities.

Not a cycle goes by where a Democrat doesn’t get brushed with having “Hollywood values,” usually for collecting hefty sums from left-leaning showbiz elites. But that hasn’t stopped the Obama campaign from following a lucrative online contest for tickets to a presidential fundraiser hosted by George Clooney with another raffle for entree to a June 14 event at the Manhattan home of Sarah Jessica Parker.

If the president has any hesitation about his campaign’s links to Hollywood, it sure isn’t showing. This week, Obama will be on Broadway, along with former President Clinton, for an event featuring performances by Stockard Channing, James Earl Jones, Tony Kushner, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin, Audra McDonald and Jeffrey Wright, to name a few. And while Obama’s support of same-sex marriage last month drew scorn from Bristol Palin, who dismissed the influence of the President’s daughters on the issue as being inspired by “Glee,” Obama , undeterred, was set to return to Los Angeles on June 6 for an LGBT fundraiser featuring Pink, and a high-dollar dinner at the home of the “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy.

Nugent and Trump, meanwhile, have had long records of making outrageous statements for maximum publicity, but that didn’t stop Romney from seeking their endorsement. He called Nugent before getting the rocker’s nod, and appeared with Trump at a press conference to announce the billionaire’s blessing. After the Obama campaign reaped millions from the online contest for the Clooney event, the Romney campaign launched one of its own, Dine With the Donald, with a campaign website page featuring an image of a boisterous Trump promising the winner a meal with himself and the candidate, and a stay at a Trump hotel.

To be sure, Nugent and Trump obviously became more problematic as they strayed from the rules of celebrity surrogates, which is to err on the side of caution instead of being a caution.

Still, the Obama and Romney campaigns have reaped millions from their associations with celebs, and the attacks have seemed little more than distractions. It used to be that candidates on the right could go to the heartland, and say the phrase “Hollywood values” to illustrate a system that is disconnected from the values of the rest of the country, says Steve Schmidt, senior campaign strategist and adviser to McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Now, he maintains, that attack doesn’t quite resonate.

“I think that fundamentally, the culture has coarsened so much that it is a non sequitur for most people,” Schmidt says. “I just don’t think the ‘Hollywood’ attack is effective anymore.”With the Internet and reality shows, celebrities have been

“democratized,” Schmidt theorizes, not only making them appear more accessible, but also creating new categories of people who are famous for being famous.

Yet there’s reason to be circumspect in cozying up to this new form of star, Schmidt says. “It may be that the reality-show figure is more of a liability than the Hollywood star,” he notes. The former craves publicity, while the latter attempts to carefully control it. Schmidt feels the Romney campaign’s association with the billionaire costs Romney time. “Mitt Romney was unable to talk about the economy, and instead was talking about the ravings of Donald Trump,” he says.

Anthony Nownes, professor at the U. of Tennessee at Knoxville and author of a recent study on celebrity endorsements, wonders if voters will see it as the Donald being the Donald, although even that may have limits. “I suspect if (the Romney campaign) had to do it all over again, they wouldn’t do it,” he says.

Instead, Nownes wouldn’t be surprised if Romney subtly backs away from Trump in the coming weeks — that is, if there is a quiet way of saying, “You’re fired.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more