September 17, 2008 / 7:30 PM / 10 years ago

Issues eclipsed by star power in presidential race

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Celebrity is playing an unprecedented role in the U.S. presidential election, whether it’s Barack Obama taking heat for a $28,500-per-plate dinner in Hollywood, John McCain grappling with the women of “The View” or Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin.

US Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks in Golden, Colorado September 16, 2008. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Republican candidate John McCain lashed out at Democrat Barack Obama’s $9 million Beverly Hills fundraisers on Tuesday as an example that Obama was out of touch with common voters, but McCain, too, has his own Hollywood coterie.

Political analysts and culture watchers say the role of celebrity in politics has gone well beyond mere endorsements, which have long had only a limited impact.

This year, politicians are appearing on daytime and late night chat shows to reach a broader group of voters than they would via political programs, and Web search services report people looking for qualities in candidates that have more to do with their lifestyles than their campaign platforms.

“The power of celebrity is playing a greater role, not in celebrities (endorsing) the candidates. It’s the celebrity aspect of the candidates themselves,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University.

A fractured media landscape with countless TV channels appealing to niche audiences has forced the candidates to leave a politician’s comfort zone and appear on talk shows and comedy programs, experts said.

Obama’s early appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” helped vault him to early prominence, although since he has been a declared candidate he has not been on her program.

Last week, he put in an appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and tried to clarify his “lipstick on a pig” remark that raised the ire of his Republican rivals.


McCain also took to the celebrity talk show circuit last week on “The View,” where he was grilled about topics such as the consistency of his character by the female hosts including Barbara Walters, actress Whoopi Goldberg and others.

“You don’t get your message across just by appearing on “Meet the Press’ anymore,” said Los Angeles-based political analyst Allan Hoffenblum, referring to the long-running news show.

Producer David Zucker, whose conservative political spoof “An American Carol” opens in movie theaters next month, said such appearances help make candidates’ seem more like average Americans.

“These candidates do reach out to get into popular culture, and if nothing else show how much of a regular guy they are,” Zucker said.

Even on the Web, voters are looking at the personal lives of the candidates with the kind of eye for minutiae typically reserved for stars, said Bill Tancer, of Internet tracking company Hitwise.

Last month, the top 10 Web search terms for Obama and McCain included requests for information about family members, Obama’s height and for images from Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s days as a beauty queen contestant.

Those types of searches outnumber campaign issues such as the economy, according to Hitwise. “Right now it looks like people are focused on the image of the candidates,” he said.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Doina Chiacu

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