published Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Seeking the limelight, with the help of star power

By JIM KUHNHENN

Associated Press

  • photo
    Singer Cee Lo Green performs at the annual Christmas in Washington taping. No presidential candidate worth his chauffeured SUV has reached his personal zenith without this: Celebrities to vouch for them. They are the glam and glitter of political campaigns, sure to turn even jaded political operatives into fawning celeb watchers. Green is backing President Barack Obama.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

CHICAGO — No presidential candidate worth his chauffeured SUV has reached his personal zenith without this: celebrities to vouch for them. They are the glam and glitter of political campaigns, sure to turn even jaded political operatives into fawning celeb watchers.

Nobody commands the nexus of stardom and politics more than President Barack Obama. Mocked by opponents during his 2008 campaign for being a celebrity himself, he draws from a broad assortment of personalities — Hollywood liberals, NBA stars and more.

Friday offered a case in point. Obama was on his way to Atlanta to raise money with film producer Tyler Perry at a gala event featuring a performance by pop star Cee Lo Green. His just-released campaign biopic is narrated by actor Tom Hanks. On Thursday, a White House visit by Obama backer and Oscar winner George Clooney to meet with the president over conditions in Sudan drew a gaggle of press coverage.

Obama, though, has no monopoly on big names.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has campaigned with Jeff Foxworthy, the genial comedian with a repertoire of redneck jokes, convinced rocker-rapper Kid Rock to perform at a campaign rally and won supportive words from KISS lead singer Gene Simmons.

Newt Gingrich has action film star Chuck Norris in his corner. Rick Santorum has been endorsed by Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine, and Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, stars of TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting,” have made campaign appearances with him. Ron Paul has an eclectic list of shout outs from the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Snoop Dogg, Oliver Stone, Juliette Lewis, Vince Vaughn, Joe Rogan, and Jesse Ventura.

Such proximity to stardom can reap big benefits for a politician. Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who’s had his brush with the stars working for Al Gore and Bill Clinton, says personalities help alter the typical, antiseptic look of a political event.

“These celebrities, one of the reasons they are celebrities, is they have a unique ability to connect with people,” he said. “You’re using them as a bridge to connect with their fans and their audiences.”

For Obama, whose campaign so far has focused primarily on fundraising, celebrities such as Clooney, Will Smith, Magic Johnson and Antonio Banderas help attract the big-dollar givers.

Obama fundraisers take place in glamorous places — the rose petal-strewn pathway of Banderas’ house in Los Angeles, the full-size indoor basketball court in the Orlando home of Dallas Mavericks star guard Vince Carter, or the sprawling grounds of television producer Brad Bell.

On Friday, Obama was on a furious fundraising pace, hitting five events in two cities in one day. At day’s end, Obama will have participated in 108 fundraisers since last April when he filed for re-election last April with the Federal Election Commission. During the same period in 2004, President George W. Bush had attended 54 such events, according to CBS News’ Mark Knoller, the unofficial but authoritative keeper of such statistics in the White House press corps.

Last month in Los Angeles, Obama had a star-studded evening — a performance by Grammy-winning rock band Foo Fighters for about 1,000 supporters followed by a more intimate dinner featuring Clooney and actor Jim Belushi.

Friday’s activities in Atlanta are similar, with a Cee Lo concert first at Tyler Perry Studios — tickets range from $500 for general admission to $2,500 and $10,000 for VIP — followed by a $35,800 per person dinner at Perry’s house.

Republicans, in the midst of their primary contests, have turned to celebrities for validation with voters.

Norris recorded robocalls for Gingrich before last week’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. Norris, active in Republican politics for many years, endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the 2008 presidential primary.

Santorum, who has scooped up endorsements from sports figures, has also tapped into a well-known band of reality TV stars. The Duggar family has fanned out across the country during the primary season to vouch for the former Pennsylvania senator. Josh Duggar, the oldest of 19 children, made the rounds Friday at a central Missouri rally for Santorum after previously doing the same in Iowa, Oklahoma, Georgia and many places in between.

“Our family is like the epitome of conservative values,” Duggar said. “People connect to us in that way.”

The entire family planned to assemble Saturday in Illinois to give Santorum a push ahead of that state’s primary.

Some celebrities play down their onstage personas when traveling with candidates. Last Monday, Foxworthy, the Southern comedian, skipped the jokes when he campaigned with Romney in Mobile, Ala., telling audiences he had never bothered with politics before.

But it was Romney who riffed on Foxworthy’s TV quiz show, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” Obama is clearly smarter than an elementary school pupil, Romney said, but he has pushed unwise policies on health care, energy development, spending and taxes.

“This president has done almost everything wrong,” Romney said.

Stars, Lehane says, are a net benefit. But they can be loose cannons; they don’t always subscribe or adhere to the campaign talking points. Lehane recalls Cher attracting a group of reporters at a campaign event for Gore in the fall of 2000 where she was advocating views about the Middle East at odds with the Gore campaign ticket.

“You always have to be a little bit careful when you’re dealing with a celebrity,” Lehane said., “First of all, they can be unscripted. Stuff that they can say and typically do that works in their space sometimes doesn’t translate when the political prism is put over it. Sometimes you end up having to disassociate yourself form other aspects of that celebrity’s life.”

Consider Cee Lo, the pop star performing for 1,000 donors Friday at Tyler Perry Studios. Cee Lo has an expletive-filled hit song titled with an expletive that translates, in the cleaned up version, to “Forget You.” Not exactly Obama’s appeal for hope, or civility or of perseverance.

Asked about any incongruity between performer song and presidential message, White House spokesman Jay Carney said of Obama: “I know he’s fan. I don’t know about specific songs.”

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Associated Press writers Charles Babington, Brian Bakst, Kasie Hunt and Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.

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