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Hollywood Auditions Candidates

Now that Gore's out, the five top Democratic presidential hopefuls are courting the stars-- and their big campaign donations.

February 11, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak and Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writers

A day after Al Gore announced his decision to skip the 2004 presidential race, Rob Reiner arrived at the studio offices of Castle Rock Entertainment in Beverly Hills to find three messages.

Howard Dean, John F. Kerry and Joseph I. Lieberman were all trying to reach the actor-director to commiserate -- and to plug their own White House bids. By week's end, Reiner, an active Democrat and ardent Gore supporter, also had spoken with John Edwards and Richard A. Gephardt about their presidential plans.

Still, Reiner is holding out, intrigued by the prospects but undecided about which candidate to support in 2004. "A lot of people out there are trying to find the person to fall in love with," he said.

There is no end of eager suitors.

Since 1992, when Bill Clinton captivated many in the entertainment industry, Hollywood -- long an important source of Democratic Party money -- has become a vital one. Over the last several elections, political contributions from donors in the movie, TV and music business have more than tripled, to $46 million in 2002.

Ranked by industry, Hollywood is the nation's fourth-biggest source of cash in federal campaigns, surpassing longtime givers such as the energy and tobacco industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign giving. More than 70% of the money contributed over the last decade has gone to Democrats, reflecting Hollywood's leftward tilt and Clinton's cementing of that relationship.

"They come where they know, as a matter of principle, they have great support," said entertainment magnate Haim Saban, a major Democratic donor. "They're not going to go to Mississippi."

Now that Clinton and Gore have left the scene, the industry's hearts and checkbooks are largely unspoken for. As a result, Hollywood is in the throes of an ardent courtship, as candidates, moguls and celebrities get acquainted at elaborate dinners, luncheon tryouts and private performances in the mansions and high-rises of Los Angeles' Westside.

In just the last few weeks, North Carolina Sen. Edwards has stumped at the Pacific Palisades home of Larry David, star and creator of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Former Vermont Gov. Dean has huddled with actor Warren Beatty. Missouri Rep. Gephardt mingled Thursday night in Beverly Hills at the mansion of ex-studio owner Marvin Davis. Those sessions all have been private, as the participants prefer; some who have attended say the candidates talk about the same issues -- health care, the economy, the environment, defense and foreign policy -- that they discuss with Democratic activists across the country.

"It's weird. We went away for the holidays and came back and suddenly they were all here," said Margery Tabankin, a longtime Hollywood activist who runs Barbra Streisand's personal and political foundation. (Streisand was sighted at the Edwards affair.)

By the end of February, each of the five leading Democratic contenders will have called on Hollywood at least one time this month.

Some, like Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. Kerry, are building on long-standing relationships. Others, like Dean and Edwards, are relatively fresh faces. There is little evident support for Connecticut Sen. Lieberman, Gore's running mate in 2000, who has antagonized many with his crusade against media sex and violence, or for the Rev. Al Sharpton, the most recent entry in the field.

Apart from those two, however, "the race ... is up for grabs, in a way it really hasn't been in Hollywood for years," said Chad Griffin, a former Clinton aide now active in the entertainment community.

If anything, industry support may have grown even more valuable under new campaign finance laws that limit so-called soft money, the unlimited contributions that political parties -- and Democrats in particular -- collected in five- and six-figure chunks.

Individual donors can now give no more than $4,000 to a candidate each election season, which puts a premium on those political givers -- such as agents, producers and other Hollywood brokers -- who can tap large networks of like-minded peers to fill several dinner tables at $2,000 a plate, or persuade a rock star to give a $1,000-a-ticket concert.

"The personal checks are important," Tabankin said. "The connections are incredibly important."

While Clinton and campaign finance have combined to elevate Hollywood's activism and influence in recent years, the industry's political involvement goes back decades, practically to the advent of motion pictures.

Al Jolson corralled support for both Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. MGM founder Louis B. Mayer was the first studio chief to systematically court politicians, wooing Herbert Hoover and eventually dining at the White House.

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