Post-Eastwood, Democrats Sticking to Celebrity Convention Plans (Analysis)

The Hollywood stars who are scheduled to attend the convention aren’t the sort likely to cause Eastwood-esque issues.

The hardworking folks of Charlotte, N.C., are still hoping that, when it comes to stargazing, this week's Democratic National Convention will make their city look like the Polo Lounge on Oscar morning. But after Clint Eastwood's much-talked-about improv performance last week at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., are party officials likely to tone down the celebrity presence?

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The answer is no, but that’s mainly because far fewer high-wattage celebrities are expected to attend this gathering of the Dems than turned up in Denver four years ago for Barack Obama’s initial nomination. That includes political notables as well as entertainment industry types. The reasons are several, but during the weekend one of the party’s elder statesmen, former Speaker of the California Assembly and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, quipped in a newspaper column that he was skipping the convention for the first time in decades because Charlotte is too hard to get to, and there’s “no shopping” once you arrive. That about sums up the celebrity perspective, but North Carolinians still are optimistically playing the tabloid guessing game: Will Brad Pitt show up -- and if he does, will he be bring Angelina Jolie? The local press speculates that Susan Sarandon might turn up, but Oprah Winfrey, sadly, definitely is a no-show.

The Hollywood stars who are scheduled to attend the convention aren’t the sort likely to cause Eastwood-esque issues, since all have been active as Obama campaign surrogates or party regulars, including Eva Longoria, who will address the delegates ahead of the president Thursday. She has been one of Obama’s firmest long-term enthusiasts and an essential part of his outreach to Latino voters, who will play a crucial role in this election. Longoria isn’t likely to “go off message,” nor is Ashley Judd, who’s attending as a delegate. Similarly, all of the celebrities who will be in the arena to hear Obama speak Thursday are what might be termed party regulars. They include Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama, Russell Simmons,, Jessica Alba and her husband, Cash Warren.

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Actor Kal Penn, who worked in the Obama administration, will host “Live From Charlotte,” a web-only convention special Thursday night. Programming will include interviews with campaign officials and special guests including Marc Anthony, Elizabeth Banks, Aisha Tyler, Olivia Wilde, Fran Drescher, Zach Braff and Alexis Bledel. 

Although there will be plenty of bold-faced names, local reporters are still hoping to see some celebrity mega-wattage. According to a report in the Charlotte Observer on Sunday, an anonymous tip that George Clooney and Matthew McConaughey had been spotted jogging together through the downtown sent nearly half the paper’s staff spilling out onto Tryon Street in hope of confirming the sighting. No such luck, but the Observer is sticking with the gossip that Pitt might turn up. Hope springs eternal, even though Clooney has said definitively that he won’t attend.

Democratic convention planners have known for some time that Charlotte would be a hard sell for many of their most visible entertainment industry backers. Partly, that has to do with timing -- the first NFL regular-season game and MTV Music Video Awards are this week, the concert season is winding down, and filming for features and television is resuming. There’s also the matter of Charlotte being an unusually difficult city for air connections and a shortage of convenient four-star hotel rooms once you get there.

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Although Eastwood’s foray into improvisational satire might turn out to be a problem for the Republicans, overshadowing Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech and taking a big slice of the post-convention coverage, the GOP’s experience last week has little to teach the Democrats.

It now seems pretty clear that Eastwood's rambling speech was the result of the Romney camp’s inner circle not properly managing their “surprise” celebrity guest. By contrast, the ubiquity of entertainment industry star supporters for Democratic causes and candidates has given the party and its organizers a little more experience dealing with celebrities -- though not always on Eastwood's level.

While a shorter list of big-name stars at the Democratic convention might seem to signal a diminution of celebrities’ importance in this campaign, the opposite might be true once the campaign enters the homestretch. All the polls seem to predict that this will be a historically close election, with the country split virtually down the middle, and many surveys suggest that an usually large number of voters already have made up their minds about which candidate they prefer. In such an atmosphere, it will be critical for both candidates to rally their base to get to the polls -- and, there, popular Hollywood stars can play a crucial role.

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So, Clint’s cabaret and somewhat dreary Charlotte notwithstanding, we might be seeing a lot of stars hitting the campaign trail between now and Nov. 6.