Oprah Winfrey, the second-most admired woman in America, drew roughly 18,500 people in support of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama Saturday in Des Moines.
Her campaign trail support is Obama's campaign's latest effort to best his competition, particularly the most admired woman in America — Hillary Clinton, according to a Gallup poll — in the nose-to-nose race to the White House. Winfrey came in second in that 2006 survey.
"I am not here to tell you what to think, I'm here to ask you to think," Winfrey said to a cheering crowd.
The event sported one of the largest Iowa crowds so far in the 2008 race for president. Attendance even outpaced mammoth Democratic fundraisers such as Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry in September where 15,000 people attended.
Winfrey, who was introduced by Obama's wife Michelle, spoke for about 20 minutes at Des Moines' Hy-Vee Hall. She told the screaming crowd that she has voted for as many Republicans in her life as Democrats. She added that Saturday marked the first time in her career that she has officially endorsed and campaigned for any candidate because "if we continue to do the same things over, and over and over again, I know that you get the same results."
"We don't know what the future holds so we must respond to the pressures and the fortunes of history when the moment strikes and, Iowa, I believe that moment is now," Winfrey said.
Winfrey, a talk show host, is viewed as one of the most influential entertainers in the world. But her influence on politics is untested and it doesn't guarantee a windfall of support for Obama.
In general, political experts agree that celebrity endorsements have little influence upon voters. The exception, however, may be the size of crowds drawn by Winfrey's appearance who, in turn, hear Obama speak. But the key question remains if those people will transform into voters.
A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll released in October found 8% of adults said Winfrey's endorsement made them more likely to support Obama, while 10% said it would make them less likely to back him.
However, Winfrey is the second-most admired woman in the United States, according to a Gallup Poll taken about a year ago. Clinton, a U.S. senator from New York and the national Democratic presidential frontrunner, was the first for the fifth consecutive year the survey had been taken.
"I think it makes a difference knowing that somebody you trust on TV has tips" of who to support, said Ruby Cruz, a 28-year-old West Des Moines resident who is weighing support between Obama and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. "I trust her on other things. I trust her with her support of Obama." Among the most pointed comments Winfrey made Saturday was striking out at critics who say Obama lacks experience. She said "experience in the hallways of government isn't as important to me as the experience on the pathway of life."
"So I challenge you to see through those people who try and convince you that experience in politics as usual is more valuable than wisdom won from years of serving people outside the walls of Washington, D.C.," she said.
Recent polls show that support for the Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa is close among Obama, Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. However, within the past week, Obama's recent lead has gained ground.
The Des Moines Register's poll released a week ago showed he had a slight edge over Clinton with 28% of likely Democratic caucusgoers over her 25% and Edwards' 23. A Newsweek poll released a few days later showed Obama with a six-point lead over Clinton.
Obama spoke last at the Des Moines event, after his wife and Winfrey. While the vast majority of people listened to his 30-minute speech, hundreds left early, which campaign officials noted was partly due to cold weather and bad roads that worried some who attended.
Obama highlighted many of his campaign goals, including health care reform and ending the war in Iraq.
"This is our chance to finally tackle problems that have festered for too long," Obama said.