Democrats aim for more savvy use of celebrities

Look to balance risks, rewards of employing stars at convention

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Democratic National Convention begins here on Tuesday, and while it will draw a number of Hollywood figures and a degree of showmanship, one name is giving organizers a sense of caution: Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood’s now infamous Republican National Convention speech, praised in the Tampa arena, panned elsewhere and a social media sensation all around, is just the type of distraction that the party will seek to avoid, particularly on Thursday, when President Obama delivers his acceptance speech at the 65,000-capacity Bank of America Stadium.

That isn’t to say there won’t be a heavy turnout among musicians and other celebrities. The lineup on the convention’s final night includes James Taylor, Foo Fighters, Mary J. Blige, Earth, Wind and Fire, Delta Rae, Inspire the Fire and, singing the National Anthem, Marc Anthony.

On the bill for Tuesday is Amber Riley and on Wednesday is Branford Marsalis.

One showbiz figure will have a speaking slot: Eva Longoria, who is a co-chair of President Obama’s reelection campaign and has been focused on reaching women and Latinos.

Another co-chair, Kal Penn, will host a Livestream special on Thursday night, with Anthony, Elizabeth Banks, Aisha Tyler, Olivia Wilde, Fran Drescher, Zach Braff and Alexis Bledel expected to appear. It is part of a plan to Livestream the entire convention online and through a mobile app.

Ashley Judd and Thora Birch are convention delegates, along with director Paris Barclay and execs including HBO’s James Costos.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said that “you are going to see a very different type of convention” than that put on by the Republicans last week.

Asked about the concerns over the Hollywood presence this year, as the party tries to convey a message aimed at the middle class, she said, “This is going to be a community oriented, inclusive convention, and there will be all kinds of people supporting President Obama.”

At a press conference earlier on Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is chairing this event, stressed several times that this was a “working” convention, even though there has never been any surprise in the outcome and many of the more controversial parts of the platform have been worked out.

Hollywood’s leftward tilt has meant for some time that Democratic conventions usually draw an influx of stars. So many figures seemed to flood into Denver in 2008 that the campaign grew concerned that too many showbiz types would create a distraction, especially in Pepsi Center; some stars, like Ben Affleck, were strategically seated outside of camera range.

Up to now, those concerns have abated in this campaign, especially as the Obama team has been anxious to line up young Hollywood figures as surrogates and such personalities as George Clooney (who will not be here) to raise money. More than anything, the goal has been to build enthusiasm.

The Eastwood speech was a reminder of just how easy it is for a Hollywood figure to create a stir in the world of politics, particularly in a week when the media was so focused on the so-called optics of how Mitt Romney would come across to a national audience.

Likewise, convention planners will have to balance the presence of entertainers to convey enthusiasm against the message aimed at the middle class.

Obama’s campaign, by virtue of deploying so many celebrities to the trail, has worked closely with its surrogates to make sure that they stay on point. But it, too, has experienced the occasional celeb flare-up. In 2008, when Bernie Mac was introducing Obama at a fundraiser, he told off-color jokes, to the point where a heckler told him to get off the stage. Obama got out and thanked him and, perhaps half-jokingly, told him to “clean up your act.”

Wasserman-Schultz defended the choice of Longoria for a speaking slot, calling her “an important Hispanic leader in this country, and she is the national co-chair for the president’s campaign, and she has been criss-crossing the country to support his re-election.”

As for musical performers, Common will perform on Tuesday at a benefit event for Musicians On Call, sponsored by the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the Auto Alliance. Flo Rida is scheduled to perform on Wednesday at a benefit for Got Your Six, sponsored by Lifetime Television and Variety.

The Eastwood speech drew the biggest retweet of the Republican convention — but it was for a message that came from the Obama campaign, @barackobama, that read “This seat’s taken,” with some 51,400 retweets. At a panel on social media, sponsored by National Journal, the Atlantic and CBS News, Twitter’s Adam Sharp noted that some of the offshoots of the Eastwood speech, like the creation of the #eastwooding hashtag and @InvisibleObama, “took place before (the Romney) speech even ended.”

Nevertheless, Republicans on Monday sought to turn the speech to their advantage. They launched “National Empty Chair Day” on Twitter, where users could post photos of empty chairs as a way to symbolize Obama’s failure to turn around the economy.

And as much as Democrats may seek to avoid what happened in Tampa last week, they also have to get a viewing audience.

There is even talk here of a surprise speaker at some point, although the Obama campaign denies it. On Facebook and elsewhere, there is a pitch being made to give Betty White a speaking slot, as she has expressed support for Obama’s campaign and visited the White House recently.

More than likely, there will be plenty of references to Eastwood this week. According to Politico, AFSME chief Lee Saunders, speaking to the Wisconsin delegation on Monday, held a conversation with an empty chair, or an “invisible Eastwood.” Others aimed their quips not at Eastwood but at Romney. Noting the showbiz presence at the RNC, Wasserman-Schultz said, “There sure was. That was the most memorable moment, although I don’t think it was Clint.”

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