CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Slightly sexier than your average Iowa treasurer or attorney general, celebrities like actor Martin Sheen, director Rob Reiner and singer Carole King are bringing some Hollywood heat to the Iowa caucuses, choosing to brave the Midwestern winter -- right now in the relatively balmy mid-30s -- on behalf of their Democrat of choice.
Most Iowans, accustomed to the strange politico-media circus that descends upon their unassuming state every four years, welcome the occasional Hollywood visitor. In a place where deciding who to vote for is serious business, stars shilling for politicians simply offer Iowans another way to hear a candidate's message, plus a little extra national attention on the side.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Howard Dean -- An article in Friday's Calendar about Hollywood celebrities campaigning in Iowa incorrectly called Howard Dean a senator from Vermont. Dean is a former governor of that state.
"We're pretty glad when folks will come out -- we know it's a long way from Hollywood," said Patrick McKinlay, a political science professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. McKinlay, who founded a nonpartisan student organization to boost civic involvement, helped host a rally for Sen. Howard Dean Tuesday on the Sioux City campus, with Reiner and Sheen as the main attraction.
The two celebrities crisscrossed Iowa's snow-spackled prairies Tuesday and Wednesday, in half a dozen stops to spread the Dean gospel to mixed crowds of both undecided voters and Dean faithful. But some of the natives were unmoved by the stars' dropping in.
"That doesn't cut anything with me," said retiree Bob Robinson of New Sharon, who attended a rally with Sheen and Reiner at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. "I think too much emphasis is placed on what celebrities think."
Laura Riskedahl, 23, of Cedar Falls, who was at the same event, agrees. "The whole idea of the celebrity appearances is pretty funny," Riskedahl said. "How we hold Hollywood in such high esteem, like they're gods and goddesses, is hilarious to me."
But Reiner has no illusions about the importance of his particular political leanings.
"People know that our opinions don't mean more than anybody else's," he said. "... What a celebrity can do is put a spotlight on either an issue or a candidate."
The pair -- veteran liberal Democratic activists who stumped for Al Gore in 2000 -- have worked their pro-Dean performance to a high gloss. Reiner, who directed such films as "When Harry Met Sally ..." and "A Few Good Men," shouted a call-and-response chat to pump up the eclectic crowd of several hundred union members, Dean fans, curious students and undecided retirees gathered Wednesday in a student union ballroom at the University of Northern Iowa: "When I say 'Howard,' you say 'Dean!' Howard! Dean!"
Sheen followed, comparing Dean (D.-Vt.) to Martin Luther King Jr. -- the Jan. 19 caucuses fall on the day honoring the slain civil rights leader -- calling them both "dreamer(s) with courage." Sheen quoted Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's work, "Heaven of Freedom," telling the sign-brandishing crowd he learned the verses when filming "Gandhi."
"Everybody in Hollywood wanted to be just like Gandhi," Sheen said. "Thin, tan and moral."
That was Reiner's one-liner cue. His move to the microphone immediately brought forth cries of "Meathead!" from audience members -- which included visible supporters of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio) -- referring to the director by his Bunker-bestowed nickname on 1970s TV's "All in the Family."
"I could win the Nobel Prize, and they'd say 'Meathead wins the medal,' " Reiner joked. He went on to lambaste Bush's policies on Iraq and the economy. "You don't need a tax cut," he told a laughing Sheen, who earns a sizable paycheck as the star of TV's "The West Wing."
The two of them loitered for about half an hour after their remarks, chatting up lingering Dean supporters, posing for pictures and autographing physics textbooks, Dean leaflets and DVDs of "Apocalypse Now" and "The West Wing." The two later met Dean and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin at a larger rally in Des Moines to kick off Dean's upcoming bus tour around the state.
Sen. John Kerry's campaign employed the same celebrity strategy at a concert with Carole King Tuesday night in Cedar Rapids. The singer tailored her usual numbers with Kerry-themed lyrics for the audience of 1,900 at the Paramount Theater. Amy Larkin, 27, of Cedar Rapids turned out for the concert, but vote-wise is "still kind of floating a little bit," although she's leaning toward Kerry (D.-Mass.).
Which goes to show a few hours with a star doesn't necessarily seal the deal on caucus night. But if Reiner, Sheen and King haven't converted all those undecided voters, they help to bring people in the door. Famous names "attract a group of Iowans who may not go out to see a politician speak," said Sarah Leonard, the Iowa communications director for the Dean campaign. Reiner and Sheen were met by "overflow crowds" at most events, Leonard said.
"Even if you're not a Dean supporter, if you're a fan of either of these guys, you're going to come hear what they have to say," said Jeff Heim, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Northern Iowa. "Hollywood is fine with me.... [These events] are like the only time we get any sort of press at all, unless somebody has septuplets."