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Obama excites entertainment community

Star quality: It's what Hollywood was built on. And there's no question that to the many powerful Democrats in the entertainment community, Sen. Barack Obama has loads of it.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and his wife Michelle greet Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes as they arrive at the May 14, 2005 Legends Ball, an award ceremony hosted by Oprah Winfrey honoring women who paved the way in arts, entertainment and civil rights.Michael A. Mariant / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Star quality: It's what Hollywood was built on. And there's no question that to the many powerful Democrats in the entertainment community, Sen. Barack Obama has loads of it.

George Clooney calls him a friend. Halle Berry has said she'd "collect paper cups off the ground to make his pathway clear." Oprah Winfrey says he's her man.

And three of the most powerful men in Hollywood - Steven Spielberg, Jefrey Katzenberg and David Geffen - have just invited Democrats to a truly high-profile fundraiser: a Feb. 20 reception for Obama at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, with a dinner later at Geffen's home for top donors.

But despite all that, political analysts note that being the "next big thing" can be fleeting. And a number of traditional donors and activists in Hollywood and the music industry are a long way from choosing, at this early stage, whom to endorse among the three seen as top-tier Democratic candidates: Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards.

"People are very excited that this is a fine Democratic field," says Marge Tabankin, a longtime political activist in Hollywood. "Many people will support several candidates, to keep a healthy debate going. The top candidates are all coming out in the next month, and people will be carefully checking them out, listening to what they have to say."

She and other analysts point out that it's Clinton who's the clear front-runner at this point, with the long-term relationships, the financing, the network of support dating to the early '90s, when her husband began his first term as president.

Others note the admiration for Edwards, and the sense that the former North Carolina senator and the 2004 vice presidential nominee has a strong and clear message this time around.

"People feel he's very well-positioned," Tabankin says. "He's got support for his commitment to fighting poverty, for his energy and his intelligence." And in liberal Hollywood, many like his position on Iraq - he's recanted his 2002 vote authorizing force there and demanded that Senate rivals block funds for President Bush's troop increase.

Keeping options open
Even the Obama fundraiser hosted by the three founders of the DreamWorks movie studio doesn't mean all three have decided to endorse Obama. Only Katzenberg is backing the Illinois senator, says Katzenberg's political adviser, Andy Spahn.

Spielberg isn't picking favorites yet. He and other major Los Angeles donors, including producer Steve Bing, media mogul Haim Saban, supermarket magnate Ron Burkle and investment banker Sim Farar, will be co-hosting a fundraiser for Clinton in the spring, said her spokesman, Phil Singer.

Clooney, one of the world's hottest movie stars, has made no secret of his enthusiasm for Obama's candidacy, even if he's made no public endorsement.

"George is a huge supporter and fan of Barack, as well as a friend," said Clooney's publicist, Stan Rosenfield. He stressed that Clooney is unlikely to campaign for Obama, though, because the actor feels support from liberal Hollywood can be a detriment to the candidate. "You lose the heartland."

Barbra Streisand and Norman Lear, major Democratic players in Hollywood, have not taken a position, and they traditionally give to multiple candidates "in order to keep debate alive," says Tabankin, who is affiliated with the Barbra Streisand Foundation.

Obama - rock star
Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons says he has yet to make a choice. But he has an idea for the perfect Democratic candidate.

"If you could take Barack Obama's image, add Hillary Clinton's money and John Edwards' voice, that would be my candidate," says Simmons, an independent who has supported both Democrats and Republicans.

Simmons says Obama has yet to present a clear picture of where he stands.

"He's a rock star," Simmons said in a telephone interview. But he added, "I don't know what his opinions are." Simmons says that so far, the message he prefers is Edwards' - but he's also fond of Dennis Kucinich, the liberal Ohio congressman launching his second long-shot candidacy.

Others, Tabankin says, have similar reservations. "Obama has tremendous potential - he cuts across race and class lines. But people don't know him yet," she says.

There's also a current of nervousness: Is the country ready to elect a black president? The same current of nervousness exists about Clinton, of course: Is the country ready to elect a female?

A key mistake, says analyst Todd Boyd, would be to reduce everything to the gender and race factor.

"We're simplifying things if we do that," says Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. "What I'm finding interesting is that Obama is not the immediate favorite of a lot of African-Americans - he came up through the system, not the grass roots like Jesse Jackson. At the end of the day, race and gender are a major factor but not the only factor. Hollywood will line up and see how these things play out."

Yet Boyd and others cannot deny that Obama has one thing the others don't.

"Obama has the potential to be a star like nobody else does," he said. "He has that 'It' factor, that star appeal. And it's Hollywood that created that system."