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Winning the 'Feelings' Vote

By Clarence Page

Think Hollywood stars are too trivial a matter to think about in these boiling hot political times? Consider this: The most talked-about political events since Labor Day, a time when voters supposedly get serious about upcoming elections, were firmly tied up with star-studded show biz.

Competing with the MTV Awards for weekend attention was Oprah Winfrey's fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama at her California estate, in which he shared the stage for a reported "magic moment" with Winfrey and Stevie Wonder. I say "reported" because my fellow ink-stained wretches and other media creatures were shooed away to make more room for the paying guests.

Less camera-shy was former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who announced his own candidacy on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, snubbing that night's GOP debate in New Hampshire. His opponents used that opportunity to snipe at Thompson. Granite State voters, regardless of party, are united in their hurt feelings toward any candidate who fails to treat them like they're the most important people on the planet.

Nevertheless, Thompson could take some satisfaction from forcing his opponents to make him a bigger political story than anything else that was mentioned in the debate.

Does help from Hollywood matter? I would argue that it does, if not always in predictable ways.

It matters, for example, with the "feelings" voters, the ones who are not necessarily interested enough to pay much attention to all of the kazillions of stump speeches and debates until now. The "feelings" voters may not know much about the candidates' backgrounds, and they may not be moved greatly by the big issues. They are the most likely to answer "undecided" when questioned by pollsters. They waver until they figure out which candidate "feels right."

Do not make fun of the feelings voters. They have feelings, too. They also have the power to sway elections.

Gallup even took a "feeling thermometer" poll in late August, rating which candidates gave voters warm feelings and who left them "cold." Only Obama stirred up "warm" in a slight majority of Americans, although Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and John McCain ranked close behind. Clinton, however, also left almost half of the voters "cold," making her the most polarizing in the group.

If so, Obama has good reason to hope that Winfrey, the queen of warm feelings, can do for him what she has done for numerous authors in turning their books into best-sellers. What remains to be seen is whether she can help him close the gap that has kept him running behind the former first lady, even among black voters in crucial states like South Carolina.

Polls and focus groups show Clinton beating Obama particularly among working class voters across racial lines, while Obama scores better among the college educated. If so, the question for him may not be the old canard of whether he's "black enough" but whether he's downscale enough. Or "down home" enough.

Thompson, by contrast, is a Hollywood actor who wants to be compared to Ronald Reagan, the last actor to make it to the White House. Of course, all of the GOP candidates want to be compared to Reagan, just as all of the Democrats want to be compared to John F. Kennedy. But, dare I say it? Fred, you're no Ronald Reagan.

Long before he won the presidency in 1980, Reagan had more than Hollywood stardom going for him. Since at least 1964 when he made speeches across America on behalf of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the GOP nominee, Reagan was working on the big political themes that helped revive the conservative movement and take him to the White House.

A more appropriate comparison for Thompson would be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ah-nuld won California's governorship in a special election largely through his star power at a time when his own party was in disarray and voters were largely fed up with Democratic dominance of the state capital. So it is with Thompson. When he fell behind in his bid for Vice President Al Gore's empty Senate seat in 1994, Thompson turned things around with a touch of show biz: He rented a big red pick-up truck, painted his name on the side and rolled around the state to shake every hand he could grab.

Now he enters a Republican field in which the most popular choice in one July Associated Press-Ipsos poll was "None of the above." There's not much time for the public to get to know Thompson's views, but he's had years of movie and TV exposure in which he built good feelings. The Gallup "feeling thermometer" poll showed most people know his name and tend to view him favorably. That's a start. But sooner or later people are going to want to know what he thinks.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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