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Political pitches at the World Series

One actor's ad prompts other celebrities to back stem cell research foes.

October 26, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

A political ad featuring actor Michael J. Fox -- his body jerking uncontrollably from Parkinson's disease -- has touched off an unusual war of celebrity sound bites against the backdrop of the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals fans watching the first game of the baseball championship last week saw Fox, racked with tremors, urging them to vote for Missouri's Democratic candidate for Senate, Claire McCaskill, who backs a ballot measure to protect embryonic stem cell research.

In response, opponents of the measure rushed to assemble their own celebrity commercial. The 60-second spot, due to air during Game 4 of the World Series, features the Cardinals' starting pitcher, Jeff Suppan. (The game was postponed Wednesday due to rain and is now scheduled for tonight.)

Athletes and actors have long lent their star power to political campaigns. Days after leading the Boston Red Sox to a World Series title in 2004, pitcher Curt Schilling began stumping for President Bush, endorsing him in recorded phone calls to New England voters and appearing by his side at rallies.

Hollywood came out in force for Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry: Danny DeVito drove voters to the polls in Florida, Sharon Stone rallied crowds in Maine and Leonardo DiCaprio hit the campaign trail in Ohio.

But national celebrities don't often take the leap of filming ads for candidates or political causes.

"They give money. They attend fundraisers. But for the most part, they tend not to lend their likeness to political spots," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TMS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group, an Arlington, Va., firm that tracks political ads.

Fox has been an exception. He filmed ads for Kerry and for the successful California campaign for a ballot initiative promoting stem cell research. (The California campaign also featured a commercial made by paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve just days before his death in October 2004.)

This year's spot has drawn more attention than the 2004 ads because Fox looks so debilitated. His body jerks so violently in the 30-second spot that conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh mockingly mimicked the tremors and suggested that Fox was exaggerating his symptoms. Limbaugh later apologized, but the uproar over his remarks made the Fox ad the talk of the political world -- and prompted thousands of people to view it online.

Some scientists believe that embryonic stem cell research could produce treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's, a progressive disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain, impairing motor control. Missouri's ballot measure would enshrine the right to conduct such research in the state constitution.

Opponents in Missouri and on the federal level have sought to block research on embryos because they consider the cluster of cells a human being and recoil at the idea of destroying that nascent life in scientific experiments. Opponents also argue that the research is exploitative because scientists sometimes pay women to donate their eggs.

The Missouri committee opposing the stem cell ballot initiative has emphasized the exploitation argument and has asserted that the measure would open the door to human cloning.

Even before the Fox ad aired, the group had been working with actor James Caviezel, who played Jesus in the film "The Passion of the Christ," to identify celebrities who supported their cause. The Fox spot spurred them to hurry their efforts. On Tuesday, they picked up footage from Suppan, who was so eager to help that he videotaped his own remarks, said Austin Ruse, a spokesman for Missourians Against Human Cloning.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl in 2000, also joined the effort.

The ad was scheduled to air twice on Missouri TV stations during Game 4. It's a coveted slot for a political ad. But political analyst Tobe Berkovitz said he wasn't sure it would be nearly as effective as the Fox pitch, which tugged at viewers' hearts.

"What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans -- Americans like me," said Fox, who has suffered from Parkinson's for 15 years. He has made similar commercials for Democratic candidates in Maryland and Wisconsin.

The ad opposing the ballot initiative is much less emotional. Suppan, Warner, Caviezel and others look directly into the camera and assert that the measure is a fraud that will open the door to human cloning. "Don't be deceived," says Suppan, who is not wearing his baseball uniform.

"For every celebrity ad that works, there are probably three that don't, because voters don't connect the celebrity to the cause," said Berkovitz, interim dean of the College of Communication at Boston University. The latest polls show the measure to protect stem cell research winning handily in Missouri. McCaskill is locked in a tight race with incumbent Jim Talent, a Republican who opposes the ballot measure.

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stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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