'Star Wars' Strategy: Celebrity and Politics Combine Forces

In the week before the Indiana and North Carolina Democratic primaries, supporters of Barack Obama unleashed a force they hoped would prove strong enough to take away Hillary Clinton's momentum.

Their weapon: an Internet parody. The Empire Strikes Barack

Obama's latest dismissals of Clinton's gas-tax holiday and Clinton's insinuations of his elitism are brought to battle in a montage of "Star Wars" lightsaber battles and news conference sound-bites.

While unlikely to help the Obama campaign dramatically change what look to be tight races in those states, the YouTube video does demonstrate how political campaigns have learned that crossing into media coverage where celebrities normally roam means as much as a meet-and-greet on the campaign trail.

Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, thinks appearances in media outside of the news cycle are helpful for aspiring presidents.

"The presidential candidates are trying to put together a constituency of voters that will help put them over the top," Thompson said. "It's almost like the old whistle-stops where the presidential candidates got off at every stop and kissed a few babies. The modern day equivalent of the whistle-stop campaign is you do the stops on television."

Of course, politicians in the media are nothing new. Richard Nixon was on "Laugh-In" in the 70's. Bill Clinton played sax for Arsenio Hall. Last election, candidate Howard Dean demonstrated the power of Internet organizing with his campaign.

But today we see impersonators of the candidates pummeling each other on the "WWE" on the night before the Pennsylvania primary. We watch Obama adding Oprah Winfrey and the Obama Girl to his endorsements, and Clinton popping up on "The Tyra Banks Show" for a heart-to-heart. All three candidates have visited late-night shows and "Saturday Night Live" for some self-depreciating comedy.

On April 9, John McCain, Clinton and Obama joined a host of "real celebrities" on the celebrity-making show, "American Idol." The candidates pre-taped requests asking the audience to donate during the charity episode. Other participating entertainers included Mariah Carey, Bono, Miley Cyrus and Snoop Dogg.

Even presidents can join the fray. President George Bush appeared on "Deal or No Deal" in April to wish an Iraq War veteran good luck and laugh at his own low approval ratings.

"I think 20 or 30 years ago, when the line between news reporting and entertainment was much more clear, the response would have been more negative if politicians were routinely placing themselves in that venue," said Becca Cragin, assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

But today, even the candidates' spouses and children are part of the blending of celebrity and politics.

In April, Cindy McCain interviewed with "Access Hollywood." Topics included her husband's alleged infidelity, her victory over an addiction to pain-killers, and how the most romantic thing her husband does on a regular basis is look at her with adoring puppy-dog eyes.

"They realize it's a different type of interview," said Rob Silverstein, executive producer of "Access Hollywood."

"They know they're not going to be asked a question on immigration. We want to know about the love affair, how they meet, are they romantic? Any little tidbit of information that breaks down that barrier into their personal lives."

McCain's daughter Meghan writes her own blog in which she posts pictures and writes about life on the campaign trail, and topics like shoes and what is currently on her iPod. Even Chelsea Clinton, who was famously shielded from the media by her parents, has still hit the stands with People Magazine during the years when she landed a new boyfriend or a new job.

"Since the candidates are on TV so much, not only are they presidential candidates, but I consider them TV stars," Silverstein said. "Hence, that puts them in our world."

Who does "celebrity" best?

As they shift from politics to celebrity environments, the goal shifts from needing to show presidential qualities to showing their "IT" factor. Each candidate benefits from the crossover, although looking comfortable doing it may come easier to some.

Syracuse's Thompson said Hillary has worked the circuit to the most success. Her tears on television and girl-talk sessions have helped her soften her image. Bowling Green's Cragin writes about gender and television. She said it's been hardest for Hillary to seem cool.

"If you're a mom and you've had kids and maybe your hips are a little wider … you are of the moms."

Both say McCain's age counts against him in a youth- and celebrity-obsessed culture, but that he clearly is good with the off-the-cuff banter it takes to seem smooth. And all agree the candidate who is fueling excitement from the young crowd in a celebrity way is Obama.

"He's such a kind of perfect pop culture character," Thompson said. "He looks good, he sounds good. It's as if Hollywood cast this leading man."

But it remains to be seen whether this celebrity-politics mash-up will translate into votes cast in November.