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."
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."