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About an hour into an industry panel on this year’s election, pollster Frank Luntz made an announcement: Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska had been convicted of violating ethics laws, including the disclosure of gifts and home remodeling work.

“He’s under house arrest — renovated house arrest,” quipped panelist Larry Gelbart.

Such acerbic wit flowed freely at the event, a sometimes raucous, sometimes eloquent forum that may be the closest thing the entertainment industry has to a debate on the historic election. Sponsored by the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors, the confab brought together politically minded figures from both sides of the partisan divide.

Moderator and organizer Lionel Chetwynd, a longtime supporter of Republican candidates, was joined by Luntz, Gelbart, Patricia Heaton, Beau Bridges and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, with Gil Cates in the Beverly Hills Hotel audience to add a comment or two.

The conversation grew most lively and heated on the subject of Sarah Palin and the war in Iraq. There were few conflicts, however, over the state of the race, with little sense of optimism for John McCain and even the Republican Party on Nov. 4.

“The Republican Party, until it gets a message that empathizes and connects with hard-working and middle-class Americans, the party will not be back to where it is today,” Luntz said, adding that McCain is “the worst communicator the Republicans have had.”

“Stevie Wonder reads a teleprompter better than John McCain,” he quipped.

With the news of Stevens’ conviction, which throws his re-election into jeopardy, the chances of Democrats reaching 60 Senate seats, Luntz said, were now “50-50.”

Securing those 60 seats would please plenty of people who were in the room.

Barack Obama dominates Hollywood when it comes to campaign contributions. Obama has collected $5.8 million to McCain’s $964,271, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Cates said that it comes down to a matter of “trust.”

“I like John McCain. I think he is a great American hero. I think he is a wonderful guy,” Cates said. “But I don’t trust him. He seems to be arthritic. He seems to be unwilling to accept new ideas. He seems to be absolutely bound to go in a way that is proven to be a disaster to us.”

Yet Chetwynd defended McCain’s record and experience and cited Palin’s reform efforts in Alaska, among other things, that make her an “ideal Jeffersonian figure.”

“We know much less about Barack Obama than we know about Sarah Palin,” Chetwynd said. “She is accused of being inexperienced, but it seems there is a better book on her than the top of the Democratic ticket.”

The panel agreed on the need to improve public discourse, as the public increasingly seeks likeminded outlets as their news sources. There was talk of the derisive comments aimed at Obama at McCain campaign events, and the mockery of Palin’s speech and use of pejoratives when describing her.

Bloodworth-Thomason said that even though she disagrees with Palin politically, she is dismayed by personal attacks. “It’s made me angry, and it’s made me angry on behalf of women,” she said.

Yet Bloodworth-Thomason criticized Palin herself — generating the most spirited moment of the event when she took exception to Palin’s comment praising small towns as “wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”

Bloodworth-Thomason, who has rural roots in Arkansas, said, “Sarah Palin absolutely says, and I am the biggest defender of small-town women, she absolutely says that we who are the real Americans, we here in the little towns, wink wink, we are the true American people — and it is so divisive.”

“No, it is not divisive,” Chetwynd shot back. “That is a defensive position of the people who are in the flyover states who are constantly belittled and made fools of by the intelligentsia and the cognoscenti of Hollywood.”

Bloodworth-Thomason responded, “I am totally with you on this, but to me you don’t go on the campaign trail and disparage everyone else … because implied in that is they are not Jews. They are not blacks. They are not feminists….

“That is not what she said,” Chetwynd interjected.

Finally, as the debate descended to the tone of cable news commentary, Cates stood up and said, “Hold it!”

The tactic worked, and this time around, most everyone laughed.