Barack Obama taps Oprah mania to bring in voters


Even before Oprah Winfrey adopts her familiar pose &

microphone in hand &

in the unfamiliar venue of the presidential campaign, Barack Obama is already reaping the benefits of her high-wattage celebrity backing.

Thousands of Iowans have flocked to his office, and have 1,385 signed up as volunteers to score tickets to see the talk show diva and magazine queen. The campaign declines to say how many tickets have been distributed for two events Saturday in Iowa but says no one will be turned away from the unique opportunity to attract new voters.

After all, Obama is engaged in a tight, three-way race with Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards and the Jan. — caucuses are less than four weeks away.

Obama entered the Democratic presidential race with a significant disadvantage, a newcomer in national politics running against one of the world's most famous women in Clinton. Winfrey gives him his own female star power to help draw voters. The campaign hopes the "O factor" can sell the candidate the way it does books or products featured on her show.

"The only other universally adored person coming to Iowa this December is Santa," said Obama's Iowa press secretary Tommy Vietor.

Winfrey has never backed a political candidate before, but on behalf of her Chicago hometown senator is making the two stops in Iowa Saturday &

in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids &

before heading Sunday to South Carolina and New Hampshire with Obama and his wife. The campaign moved the biggest event to the 80,000-seat University of South Carolina football stadium after running out of the 18,000 tickets originally available.

In Iowa, Winfrey's show wins its time slot overwhelmingly in the state's four largest media markets &

Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Sioux City. KCCI, the Des Moines station, has the 12th highest viewership in the country for the show.

Obama adviser Steve Hildebrand said two-thirds of those in South Carolina who snapped up the first batch of tickets were voters who had never been identified by the campaign before.

"We'll use this as an opportunity to begin a dialogue with them," Hildebrand said. "We expect this to be powerful, but we don't know it for sure because it hasn't been done before by her. Even if this has a small amount of influence, it's going to matter."

Any Iowan can get tickets by signing up online or visiting one of Obama's 37 statewide offices. At the state headquarters in Des Moines, 22-year-old field assistant Prianka Sharma has spent the week distributing blue priority tickets and white general admission from a table set up in the entrance.

Temperatures outside are freezing, and the door has been opening so much that Sharma does her work wearing a winter coat, boots, an "Obama '08" knit hat and fingerless gloves sent from Chicago by her worried mother. She asks ticket-seekers to provide contact information and quizzes them on whom they are supporting and what they've done for the campaign.

"Everyone who comes in will get a ticket &

the number will just depend on their involvement with the campaign," she said. "Even if they are supporting other campaigns, we'll give them one." She said no one has been willing to admit they are backing a rival while asking for a ticket &

although some say they are undecided.

Those who volunteer at least four hours for the campaign or sign up for caucus training are rewarded with at least two tickets. Precinct captains get blocks to distribute to as many people as they can recruit.

Emily Smith, a captain on the west side of Des Moines, has 50 and has been very careful maximizing their benefit, giving first priority to active volunteers. Then she started working the phones, making calls to new voters she hadn't called before to see if there was a chance they might back the Illinois senator. To those who were open to it but not yet sold, Smith would ask if they'd like Oprah tickets.

"I work full time so I don't watch her that much, but I've been really surprised how much people love her," Smith said. "I don't think Oprah is going to change anybody's mind necessarily, but it helps me to get people to go see the senator. And I think if they do that, they are going to support him."

One point of dispute is the location for the Obama event in New Hampshire. The Verizon Wireless Arena is staffed by non-union labor. But Mark McKenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO, said they consulted with the campaign and will not picket.

Share This Story