It's fitting that tonight's Democratic presidential debate will be held at Los Angeles' Kodak Theatre, home of the Oscars and one of Hollywood's most hallowed monuments to the stars. Star power rocks on the campaign trail these days, with an unprecedented number of actors, entertainers and sports figures stumping for candidates
And it's not only the phalanx of celebrities attempting to influence the primary races; it's also what they're doing. In years past, most stars have been content to endorse and bankroll candidates and make high-profile appearances. But this year, with the race still open and 22 states up for grabs on Super Tuesday next week, celebrities have been working in key states earlier, in greater numbers and more extensively than ever.
Ron Howard, Quincy Jones, Ted Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen, America Ferrera, Amber Tamblyn and sport legends Magic Johnson and Billie Jean King have stumped for Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama's celebrity campaigners include Scarlett Johansson, Chris Tucker, Kerry Washington and singer Usher.
Before bowing out of the race Wednesday, John Edwards had Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, James Denton and others stumping for him, and singers Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and John Mellencamp performing.
"At this stage of the game, celebrity and politics are fusing in a way that hasn't happened before — and the exposure and media play is remarkable," says veteran entertainment industry watcher Jeffrey Ressner of Politico.com. "In the past, many celebrities waited until there was a two-person race. Now, they're working hard and getting their hands dirty if they have strong feelings for a candidate."
Says talk-show host and Clinton supporter Star Jones, "People are stepping out of their comfort zone. They know they may take a (public relations) hit. But people are really vested in this presidential campaign. People are (angry) at the way this country has been run. Everyone wants change."
Do Stars Matter
Of course, even an army of stars is no guarantee of success. With his star-studded campaign trail help, Edwards still couldn't generate enough heat to remain a contender. And numerous studies and public opinion polls have pointed to the marginal impact a celebrity endorsement brings.
Yet in a 24/7 media-saturated environment where style often supersedes substance, Hollywood buzz has been key for some candidates. Winfrey's appearances for Obama in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina drew thousands of onlookers at campaign stops, helping validate his campaign. Action icon Chuck Norris kick-started Mike Huckabee's campaign, from his first TV ad to stops in early primary states.
"Chuck Norris has been a tremendous asset," Huckabee says. "He's a big hit on the campaign trail. In fact, there've been many times when Chuck's fans have flooded into events to see him — which is OK with me, since it gives me exposure to a whole new group of potential voters."
Huckabee's eclectic entourage has since been joined by professional wrestler Ric Flair.
John McCain has had veteran character actor Wilford Brimley at his side. Mitt Romney has had Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen introduce him at events. While Romney spokesman Kevin Madden says celebrity endorsements have limited value, star power "does give you an extra news cycle or two."
Star power is especially bright for Democrats, who've lost five of the past seven presidential elections. Campaign rallies aside, celebs have worked phone banks, canvassed door to door, shaken hands at local diners, attended union gatherings and hit countless small towns and communities to spur support.
"They have been very generous with their time and resources, and I'm grateful for the help they have provided this campaign," Clinton said hours after winning Tuesday's Florida primary. "They understand that this election is too important to sit on the sidelines."
Fresh off Tuesday's Florida primary win, Clinton staffers are plotting how best to deploy celebrities in preparation for Super Tuesday. Aside from the current cast, "we've got a lot of new people coming," says spokesman Jin Chon.
Celebs aren't naive enough to think they sway voters. "No one should give more credence to (celebrity) opinions than anyone else," says Designing Women star Jean Smart, who was an Edwards backer. "I'm no Oprah. But if I can get people to come out, even if it's just out of curiosity, that's fine."
But "they help to draw crowds," Edwards said in an interview last week. "That's the most important thing they do: bring attention."
Republican Rudy Giuliani, who also withdrew from the race on Wednesday, had actor Jon Voight accompanying him. "This election is the most important of my lifetime," the actor and lifelong Democrat recently said.
Observers cite Winfrey's early praise and fundraising efforts for Obama for bringing fellow celebrities to primary races.
"It's the Oprah factor," says public relations and crisis management strategist Robbie Vorhaus. "It hasn't been that long since celebrities might have felt their careers were in jeopardy if they made a political stance. Now they're realizing the fate of the world, in many respects, is in the balance. The fact that Oprah went out and got behind a candidate opened the door for celebrities and other people of influence to stump for candidates."
Images at Risk
Some celebrities, such as Obama-supporter George Clooney, have stated that some campaign work might do more harm than good, because Hollywood's left-leaning image doesn't always play well in middle America.
There's also the risk to an actor's own career. Desperate Housewives' Denton, a long-time Republican who canvassed door to door for Edwards in New Hampshire, toured colleges in Iowa and stumped in Nevada and South Carolina, has already felt some backlash.
"I've gotten a surprising amount of mail from unhappy fans, some real conservatives who say that they're disappointed in you and will never watch your show again," he says. "It's been eye-opening."
There's also the risk of a TMZ-type moment. At a fundraiser at his Texas ranch this month, Norris told reporters that Huckabee rival McCain, who's 72, was too old for the presidency. McCain later responded that he'd send his 95-year-old mother to "wash Chuck's mouth out with soap."
"This is the problem you can run into," says Boston University professor Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High Risk TV. "Celebrities don't edit themselves."
Interviewed last week on cable channel MSNBC, Norris, 67, admitted he'd made a mistake and said he had apologized to McCain. "I don't go in as a celebrity," Norris told USA TODAY. "I'm just a concerned citizen. I'm concerned about the future of our country."
Conversely, twentysomething celebrities such as Johansson and Ferrara could draw young voters who've been largely absent from presidential races. "Celebrities are rarely a key in someone's voting decision, but one of their biggest values is attracting new voters to at least listen to a candidate or attend an event," says David Burstein, founder of advocacy group 18 in '08. "Bringing new voters into the process, engaging young people any way they can be engaged, these are good things for democracy."
Looking for a Winner
Early celebrity support focusing on a potential winner is somewhat of a departure from recent elections. "With a lot of celebrities, it's been more a case of who they identify with instead of who they think can actually be elected," notes Schroeder.
Electability was a common theme among many of Edwards' star supporters, who believe voters will ultimately reject Clinton as too polarizing to win a presidential race and Obama's African-American ethnicity and youth as too great to overcome, at least for 2008.
"You have to think beyond the caucuses and the primaries to the general election," Smart says. Sarandon, who initially supported Obama and donated to his campaign before switching to Edwards, said in an interview last week, "Edwards is the only authentic electable candidate" among Democrats.
But Edwards' withdrawal demonstrates that the question of electability ultimately rests in the electorate, not in endorsements. "At the end of the day, a celebrity will get you noticed, but you still have to deliver a compelling message that resonates with voters," Vorhaus says. "And that message has to resonate with more people than your competition."
David Jackson contributed to this report.