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THE NATION

Oprah hits the road with her candidate

As polls show Obama making gains in three crucial early states, his campaign plays its celebrity card.

December 08, 2007|Robin Abcarian and Louise Roug | Times Staff Writers

DES MOINES — "Oprah and the Obamas." It sounds like a musical act, and there is indeed something of a rock-concert quality to Oprah Winfrey's three-state swing this weekend with Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.

The Obama campaign is preparing for an outpouring of tens of thousands of supporters -- and, more important, potential supporters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the crucial early states where Winfrey will attempt to scatter some of her stardust.

In all three states, the contest for the Democratic nomination has been in flux. In New Hampshire, where New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls for months, the gap has narrowed to single digits.

In South Carolina and Iowa, Obama has recently edged into first place, according to some polls -- including among female voters. TV talk-show host Winfrey, whose embrace of Obama marked her first endorsement of a presidential candidate, has an overwhelmingly female fan base.

But whether she can help the Illinois senator win is anyone's guess.

"The honest answer is that we have no way of knowing," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is not affiliated with a candidate this year. "This is outside the normal range of experience."

Winfrey, he said, "is a unique figure in America, and to be honest, she has a pretty good record of moving product." She's also got a golden fundraising touch: On Sept. 8 at her Montecito estate, she raised some $3 million for Obama.

In Columbia, S.C., where Winfrey and the Obamas appear Sunday afternoon, demand for tickets was so great that the campaign moved the event from an 18,000-seat site to Williams-Brice Stadium, an 80,000-seat football stadium that is home to the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, according to Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for the candidate.

"We know we are not going to fill all that venue," said Griffis, "but we wanted to make sure we gave everyone who wants to see Oprah and Sen. Obama a chance."

Winfrey's appearance in South Carolina -- where African Americans count for half of Democratic voters, and African American women are a highly courted bloc -- was expected to be especially helpful to Obama. Tickets in Columbia were first offered online, Griffis said, and thousands of people claimed them within hours. A week ago, fans hoping to pick up tickets in person started lining up at 6:30 a.m., 3 1/2 hours before the campaign office opened.

The Clinton camp is responding with some star power of its own in South Carolina. President Clinton will campaign for his wife in the state today.

Singer Barbra Streisand announced recently that she supports Clinton. Though it's not clear whether the diva will stump for her candidate, Mellman mused that Bill Clinton and Streisand against Winfrey "is probably a fair fight."

In Iowa, the Winfrey events are being used as a recruitment tool and reward for campaign volunteers.

"This isn't about star power, it's about building an organization here," said Obama's Iowa communications director, Josh Earnest.

Though anyone who asks for a ticket can attend, the best seating is being reserved for two groups -- precinct captains, who are asked to distribute them for maximum political advantage, and volunteers willing to put in four hours before Winfrey shows up today.

"I'm giving tickets primarily to folks leaning toward Sen. Obama," said Mary Burke, 43, a nurse and precinct captain from nearby Lisbon, as she recruited supporters Wednesday at Cornell College in Mount Vernon after Obama spoke there. "They're coming to see Oprah," said Burke, "but you can't see him without deciding that he is one of us. And Oprah may make a difference."

Last month, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a national co-chairman of Clinton, downplayed Winfrey's popularity here.

"I'm not sure who watches her," he told the Washington Times. "Maybe young moms, maybe people who are retired. But we have the support of most retired Democrats," said Vilsack. (The average age of the Iowa caucus-goer is about 55.)

The Des Moines Register dinged the former governor for that, reporting that Winfrey has a big Iowa audience, drawing an average of 40,000 viewers each weekday, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In Des Moines, "there's an energy, a buzz, an excitement around the office that you can feel," said Tommy Vietor, Obama's Iowa press secretary, as ticket seekers streamed in. When he arrived Monday morning around 7 a.m., he said, people were already outside waiting for tickets.

Kimberly Reed, 59, didn't need tickets to board the Obama train. "I love Obama -- his honesty, his integrity," she said. "Oprah has the same traits. She's all about supporting the people . . . and so is he. I think it's a very good fit."

For Jan Bates, also 59, who picked up tickets for her mother, daughter and sister, the Des Moines rally is a girls' night out. Though she described herself as "a women's libber" -- adding, "I burned my bra a long time ago" -- she said she would probably support Obama rather than Clinton. "I'm rather impressed with Obama -- his overall attitude," she said.

Some folks just want to see what Winfrey and the Obamas can do. Bonnie Calkins, 41, who planned to take her two daughters, said the rally was a good way to while away a Saturday afternoon.

"There's nothing else to do in Des Moines," she said.

--

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

louise.roug@latimes.com

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