Despite risks, President enlists star to battle GOP SuperPACs

George Clooney rather famously promised Barack Obama, some five years ago: “I’ll give you whatever support you need — including staying completely away from you.”

Clooney’s reticence has to do with the Republican habit of turning the Democrats’ embrace of Hollywood against them (despite Republicans’ own success with candidates like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger), and while there is every sign the GOP will use that anti-Hollywood brush again as Clooney hosts a fundraiser for the president on May 10, Obama’s reelection team is doing the opposite of keeping Clooney away from the candidate; instead, they’re in full hyperlink.

With roughly 125 people paying about $40,000 per person, the evening at Clooney’s Los Angeles residence is expected to raise $5 million-$6 million, sources say, and another $4 million-$5 million from an online contest in which supporters who made a small donation were invited to enter a drawing for two to attend the fundraiser. The president’s reelection team has played up the contest to the hilt, marketing it as “Obama, Clooney and You,” and sending almost daily reminders to supporters as a way to boost low-dollar donations.

“This is going to be a record-breaking evening here in Los Angeles, with tremendous support at every level in the entertainment community,” says Andy Spahn, a political consultant for Jeffrey Katzenberg. Both are Obama bundlers, and are organizers and among the co-hosts of the event, which was to be held at Katzenberg’s new Trousdale Estates home, but according to sources was not yet ready for a presidential visit.

Instead, Clooney agreed to host, having already attended presidential fundraisers for Obama, and having been one of his most prominent and loyal Hollywood supporters.

Still, Clooney has made it clear he doesn’t plan to go out on the campaign trail, wary of hurting Obama as much as helping him. Yet there is a difference between raising money for a candidate and hitting the stump as a campaign surrogate, with fundraising targeted more to supporters, while going on the campaign trail can draw mixed crowds. Obama has been drawing heavily on Southern California, where his fundraising team is co-chaired by Capital Group’s John Emerson and Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon, as this will be the president’s fifth visit since announcing his bid for reelection. Another presidential fundraiser aimed at the LGBT community is scheduled for June 5.

The Obama campaign is embracing Clooney as a draw to boost excitement not just in the entertainment community, where it has been more difficult to match the fervor of four years ago and some top level contributors complain of donor fatigue, but among the base of small-dollar donors that may be the lifeline of a campaign sure to face an avalanche of SuperPAC money from the right. Obama senior strategist David Axelrod told Politico last week: “I saw, the other day, that (American) Crossroads, Karl Rove’s organization, got a $10 million anonymous donation. It takes 181,000 of our average donations to make up for that, so George is pitching in here and lending his name to this event and himself to this event. It’s really helpful to us.”

Just a couple weeks ago, Crossroads unveiled an ad in which it called Obama the “celebrity president,” with images of the President slow-jamming with Jimmy Fallon and dancing with Ellen DeGeneres. It echoed attacks made by John McCain’s campaign on candidate Obama in 2008, which attempted to link Obama’s level of celebrity to Paris Hilton’s. The strategy was also used to attack John Kerry for attending a starry fund-raiser in 2004, and to assail President Clinton’s tight relationship with industry figures throughout his term.

Last week, asked for comment about the Clooney event, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said: “Obama’s campaign is clearly in need of some resuscitation, so it’s fitting that they are turning to the former ‘E.R.’ star. Americans are feeling the effects of Obama’s economy every day, and no amount of celebrities or surrogates will distract from that reality.”

In general, attacks on Hollywood are attempts to brand a candidate as elitist and out of touch. But the Obama campaign is betting that the rewards from its embrace of Clooney far outweigh the risks — and they have reason to do so.

Clooney’s activism has focused on Africa, and less on partisan politics, even if he is the occasional foil for Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. (On the Oscars red carpet, he gamely gave an interview to”The O’Reilly Factor” correspondent Jesse Waters, but also corrected Waters to not refer to the occupant of the White House as simply “Obama.” “He’s the President of the United States,” Clooney said.)Clooney is also one of the few showbiz figures to get not just a meeting with Obama over policy — twice after he returned from missions to Sudan to survey the humanitarian crisis there — but to have gained some measure of respect from a celebrity-skeptical D.C. press corps as he followed up each meeting with an impromptu press conference on the White House driveway.

The result is that, even with years of engagement in the public arena and a reputation as an unabashed liberal, Clooney doesn’t trigger quite the same level of polarization as other activist stars, like Sean Penn or Barbra Streisand, long targets of the right. Clooney’s favorability “Q” score is 34; the average celebrity gets a 17, according to Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the Q Scores Co. Clooney’s level of recognition is 88; the average is 35.

“That is a pretty powerful figure in terms of recognition and likability,” Schafer says. “Through his movies, he has been able to develop a strong personal connection with the public.”

What’s more, Schafer says, Clooney’s negative rating is just 12, compared with an average of 26, and it remains at the same level it was in 2004.

Steven Ross, the author of “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,” says that Obama doesn’t care if a dinner with Clooney antagonizes the right. “They are not going to vote for him,” he says, adding that the raffle was a way of “reaching out to a younger Internet cohort who don’t necessarily vote.”

So when the President treks to L.A. for what will be a star-studded event, his campaign looks not so much to defend its embrace of a celebrity supporter, but to make a comparison to the opposition.

Ben LaBolt, spokesman for the Obama campaign, tells Variety that given presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s personal courting of Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, any criticism of the President’s choice of Hollywood bedfellow “would come with a heavy dose of hypocrisy.”

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