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Hollywood politics -- Presidential candidates tussle for the celebrity spotlight

Hollywood is supposedly a roiling hotbed of liberal activism — but for some reason, the only entertainers often elected to high office are Republicans: Ronald Reagan. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sonny Bono. The guy who played Gopher on The Love Boat...

Not to mention Fred Thompson. The 64-year-old lawyer-turned-actor-turned-politician-turned-actor-again has spent the past five years playing an elected official on TV, appearing as DA Arthur Branch on NBC's Law & Order. But on May 30, Thompson asked to be released from the show, fueling speculation about yet another career change — this one involving a run for president. The former Tennessee senator could reveal his intentions the week of July 4. No matter what Thompson decides, one thing is perfectly clear: In this campaign, Hollywood is a key battleground for candidates from both parties — even those who don't have career highlights posted on IMDb.com.

The Dems mix with a flashy, power-player-infested crowd (Brett Ratner, Brian Grazer), and Republicans have famous friends of their own (Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Vince Vaughn). Conservatives don't typically collect as much in Hollywood — though Kelsey Grammer did cut Rudy Giuliani a $4,600 check — but GOP candidates are now spending nearly as much time there as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Giuliani has visited L.A. six times, Mitt Romney has dropped in twice, and Sen. John McCain has a trip planned in the coming weeks. ''It's not surprising to see Democrats in Hollywood this early,'' observes a senior strategist for one of the Democratic candidates. ''It's 98 percent liberal. But seeing Republicans in Hollywood is something you don't expect, especially this early. That's unusual.''

The reason for this surge in California's political clout? A not-so-minor alteration in the primary schedule. This year the contest moved up to Feb. 5, joining numerous other states to create a Super-Duper Tuesday early in the campaign cycle. With voter approval up for grabs, California is now besieged by White House wannabes on both sides. This year, the battle has been fierce even by Hollywood's ruthless standards, with death matches between Clinton and Obama over David Geffen's support — it went to the Illinois senator — and for Steven Spielberg's endorsement (still undecided).

Of course, Republicans don't have as much practice sucking up to Hollywood as Democrats — in 2001 Senate hearings, McCain didn't charm many in the movie industry by all but threatening censorship — so campaigning there is a little like parachuting behind enemy lines. Still, the stakes are too high not to try. For one thing, an endorsement from California's popular Republican governor (who, we hear, used to be a celeb himself) would offer a huge boost to any campaign. ''What the governor has done may have some echo effects into the Republican presidential field,'' says GOP strategist Rich Galen. ''So the Republicans are having doors opened to them that they might not otherwise had opened. They owe it to Arnold.'' And California is vast, with areas immune to even Spielberg's and Geffen's influence, especially when the race moves from the primary stage to the general election (Ronald Reagan carried the state in 1980 and 1984, as did George H.W. Bush in 1988). ''When you come to L.A. as a Republican candidate, it's not about getting the entertainment industry,'' explains Paramount president of worldwide distribution and marketing Rob Moore, a Giuliani supporter. ''It's about getting the broader network of L.A.-based professionals.''

''It's a blue state, but these things tend to reset every few years,'' adds Jonathan Wilcox, adjunct professor of communications at USC (and a speechwriter for former California governor Pete Wilson, another Republican). ''Republicans' attention to Hollywood is definitely going to increase. It's like prospecting for gold. They are going to try to succeed where others have failed.'' — Additional reporting by Vanessa Juarez and Nicole Sperling

Originally posted Jun 08, 2007 Published in issue #939 Jun 15, 2007 Order article reprints