Obama's Celebrity Army

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Mike Derer / AP

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, waves as he campaigns with actor Robert DeNiro, right, at rally in East Rutherford, N.J., Monday, Feb. 4, 2008,

For all their outsized influence in American society, celebrities have enjoyed relatively little power in helping to sway modern-day elections. Sure, Hollywood bigwigs rarely miss an opportunity to voice their support for a chosen candidate, but their impact has typically been felt in the fund-raising arena, and more often during the Democratic primaries, when a celebrity endorsement is less liable to create a backlash among more conservative voters. Americans may flock out and buy soap, beer or cars because of celebrity endorsements, but voters by and large don't like being told whom to vote for by their favorite TV superhero or movie superstar.

But this year, in a Democratic presidential nomination race that has defied convention at every turn, celebrities are playing a much bigger role than usual. Rather than just lending their endorsements, stars from the worlds of music, TV, and movies are taking active roles in getting the word out, particularly in Senator Barack Obama's campaign.

Many pundits had assumed Obama had written off the Golden State, where until recently Hillary Clinton had a comfortable lead. He had visited only briefly last week before moving on. Then, this past weekend, the campaign announced a last-minute rally with Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Caroline Kennedy.

Hastily assembled in less than 30 hours on Super Bowl Sunday, the gathering drew 9,000 people. "I believe that change has already come, California. I believe that change has already come because I know that you all just heard about this this morning and you said 'Let me get on over there to UCLA,' here on a Super Bowl Sunday," Winfrey told the crowd. "We're all energized, we're excited and we're fired up."

Oprah isn't the only one. Voters in many of the Super Tuesday states, particularly on college campuses, shouldn't be surprised to see celebrities such as Robert DeNiro, who appeared today with Obama at a New Jersey rally, Kerry Washington, Usher, Chris Rock, Brendan Routh, Kate Walsh, Kal Penn and Tate Donovan speaking on Obama's behalf. Voters in California are getting phone calls from Ed Norton and Alfre Woodard; caucus-goers in Colorado might hear from Forest Whitaker. Enrique Marciano, who stars in CBS's Without a Trace, is campaigning for Obama with Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Minnesotans might be shocked to see Scarlett Johansson knocking at their door.

Obama's surge of celebrity backing turns the tables on the Clintons, who have long enjoyed strong support from powerful Hollywood figures. Clinton isn't without her share of Hollywood fans who are working to augment her built-in name recognition ahead of Super Tuesday. Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Howard, America Ferrera, Amber Tamblyn, Fran Drescher, John Grisham and Magic Johnson have all campaigned on her behalf, helping out with phone banks and making the occasional personal appearance. At a Clinton rally in L.A. on Saturday, such boldface names as Sally Field, Bradley Whitford and Christine Lahti were in attendance.

In campaigns past Los Angeles was a little more than an ATM stopover on the fund-raising circuit. But this year Obama is asking stars who support him to not only speak on his behalf, but to stuff mailers, make calls, knock on doors, install yard signs and act as precinct captains — pledging to lead hundreds of their friends and neighbors to the polls.

"It is indicative of Obama's strategy overall, gathering everyone, actors, directors, producers, elbow to elbow to elbow with everyone," said David Washington, a senior adviser to the campaign in California. Indeed, Obama has approached organizing in California much in the way he did Iowa — with precinct captains and small groups banding together from the ground up, in addition to the more traditional strategy of phone calls, media hits and advertising.

"It's like when you go to get a drink you get a Coke because you don't know any better," said the actress Alfre Woodard at a Brentwood house party she helped organize for 250 women for Obama on Saturday. "Well, if you take orange juice and mix it with a little seltzer you get then same effect and it's good for you. And that's Obama — he's good for this country, they just may not know it yet."

The crowd, which included Victoria Hopper, wife of Dennis Hopper and head of Women for Obama in California, producer Paula Weinstein, actress Tracee Ellis Ross of the CW show Girlfriends (and daughter of Diana Ross), actress Journee Smollett of The Great Debaters and Vicki Kennedy — wife of Max Kennedy, one of Bobby Kennedy's sons — murmured their assent. All told, the women pledged to each bring 50 people to the polls with them and make a total of 2,000 calls before Super Tuesday.

That same day Donovan, star of the F/X show Damages, told a crowd of 300 canvassers across town in Venice Beach about how nervous he was making his first phone calls for Obama. "I mean I've done Broadway with Judi Dench, but this was more nerve-wracking, I was calling in to people's homes," said Donovan, who spent much of last week with Obama in South Carolina and now heads to Minneapolis.

Later that night Kelly Hu, of X-Men fame, held two fund raisers at Hollywood nightclubs for young Asian Americans supporting Obama. "He really speaks to the younger generation," said Hu, who also knocked on doors in Nevada before the caucuses and drove to San Francisco last week to rally supporters. "He speaks to Asian Americans because he's lived amongst us in Asia and in Hawaii. But even if he hadn't, he would still be the most inspiring candidate I've ever seen."

Stars including Johansson, Hu, Walsh, John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Adam Rodriquez, Amber Valetta and Nick Cannon also got together and created a pro-Obama video with The Black Eyed Peas, "Yes We Can," which is currently the top YouTube download,

"We were calling everyone we knew and everyone just dropped everything to be part of the video, it was amazing," said Fred Goldring, who produced the video and is a former chairman of Rock the Vote. "We're still hearing back from folks asking if we'll do another one. This is amazing, it's unlike any other campaign I've ever seen. It's a movement."