George Clooney’s friends are urging him to run for governor of California. Brad Pitt says he’d vote for him but he himself doesn’t want to run for office, though Ben Affleck says he may give it a try.

OK, none of this is the stuff of headlines, but it does point up an interesting phenomenon: Not since the days of the Blacklist have politics figured so pervasively in Hollywood’s daily dialogue. And as the presidential race intensifies, so will the conflicts and culture clashes.

Candidates are issuing almost daily press releases announcing the support of celebrities. Fundraisers have become a weekend ritual — many focused on a specific demo like agents, TV stars or music mavens.

More stars than ever are disclosing their political preferences, and some studio executives admit they’re fretful about the consequences.

The risks are real. Don Cheadle acknowledged recently that fewer comedies seem to be coming his way since he became a serious spokesman on Darfur. Cheadle loves comedy and wonders why an actor can’t be funny onscreen yet a grownup in his private life.

Given the plethora of new films set against the background of terrorism, however, some studio marketers worry that the public may confuse the political positions of the stars with the storylines of their films. Their plea: Don’t discuss politics on the Leno-and-Letterman talk circuit. The catch, of course, is that celebrities have their best exposure at the moment their films are released.

In the Blacklist days, to be sure, political debate was turned into a game of career assassination. If a celebrity took a position that reflected a “lefty” point of view, zealots like Hedda Hopper would question their patriotism. Studios publicly declared that would-be “Commies” were no longer welcome on the lot. Even the Hollywood trade press liked the idea of the Blacklist.

When the Blacklist era ended, a degree of civility returned to Hollywood’s political dialogue. I used to have an occasional lunch with John Wayne and even played tennis with Charlton Heston and, despite their conservative ideologies, both were thoughtful men who were willing to listen to the other side (Heston’s NRA diatribes later radicalized his image).

The coming presidential campaign, however, may mark a return to the toxic politics of the Blacklist epoch. The polarizing issues are clearly in evidence along with a growing sense that the election could mark an historic change of course.

Entrenched alliances are becoming unglued. The Republican Party “is losing its grip on the core business vote,” The Wall Street Journal reported last week, listing key corporate figures who are defecting because they feel the administration is spending wildly and managing poorly. The evangelicals, too, seem suddenly divided as to whether poverty and the environment shouldn’t demand as much attention as abortion.

Hollywood is having its internal debates as well. Though the Rush Limbaugh types believe that the entertainment community stands as a liberal stronghold, the politics of its power structure are similar to that of any bastion of wealth: The fiscal conservatives probably outnumber the social liberals. The hierarchy at News Corp. probably reflects the community: Rupert Murdoch has his circle of rightwing functionaries (whose views are reflected in his publishing properties), yet he’s come to terms with the fact that much of his empire is run by Democrats or those who disdain both parties.

And there are many folks in town who believe both parties are impotent and irrelevant. “Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg have moved beyond parties, and I’m with them,” says one political activist.

Rupert is right in letting everyone speak his mind. The same should be said for network and studio heads in the coming political season. The upcoming election is a watershed moment in our democracy. Celebrities should feel free to speak out on the issues and candidates without worrying whether studio or network mandarins will come down on them.

As for George or Brad — well, I’d vote for Clooney even if it was for dog catcher. And maybe Brad for sheriff.