Lesser-known GOP celebs at gathering

Other party lure more headliners

Election 2004

The Republican Convention

August 31, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Forget politics. Let's talk celebrities.

The Republican National Convention kicked off last night with performances by Darryl Worley, the Gatlin Brothers and Dexter Freebish (a band, not a person), as well as remarks from actor Ron Silver. Tonight the delegates will be entertained by Daize Shayne and hear from Elizabeth Hasselbeck.

Who?

The musicians filling the GOP dance card for this convention come from two very red-state worlds: Christian rock and country music. Among the other "celebrities," Elizabeth Hasselbeck was a contestant on Survivor and now appears on The View, Daize Shayne is a surfing champion turned singer, and Ron Silver once played a political consultant on The West Wing.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have Martin Sheen, who plays the president on The West Wing.

Compared to the Democratic gathering in Boston last month, the Republican convention is making it clear that the GOP suffers from a severe celebrity deficit (save in the country music category). Their announced convention lineup is a lackluster collection of B-list celebs who would be lucky to get a guest spot on Hollywood Squares.

It's no secret that entertainers and celebrities have always leaned Democratic -- the default setting in Hollywood. But this year in Boston they put their political beliefs front and center like never before. Appearing on stage in Boston were Glenn Close, Willie Nelson, Patti LaBelle, Carole King and Benjamin McKenzie, a star of the Fox teen drama The O.C.

Ben Affleck seemed to be everywhere in Boston -- holding press conferences, visiting with the Kerry daughters in their skybox and wandering the convention floor. TV cameras also caught Leonardo DiCaprio and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David in attendance.

And last week the MoveOn political action committee, which is not affiliated with the John Kerry campaign but has orchestrated a well-financed anti-Bush movement, announced that it will be debuting ads over the next 10 weeks featuring well-known actors and directors including Matt Damon, Rob Reiner, Kevin Bacon and Richard Linklater.

While some entertainers no doubt have passionate, thoughtful opinions on this election, others may be Democrats just because, in Hollywood at least, it's easier that way.

"George Bush has done all right work with AIDS in Africa. He's really tried, but no [celebrity] is going to give him credit for that because it just doesn't feel cool," said Travis Morrison, the former lead singer of The Dismemberment Plan and whose new album, out next month, deals with the reactionary politics of both parties. But he understands why artists prefer Kerry.

"The policies the Democratic Party pursues are going to be perceived, at least on the surface, as more humane and more lyrical and safer for the artist's mindset," Morrison said. He said he's disappointed with the artists who have signed on to support Kerry without trying to bring about change at a cultural level, where they might have more influence.

"I would like to see them reach out more to other cultures than to Kerry," said Morrison, who will be playing at the Talking Head in Baltimore this Saturday.

To be fair, not all of the entertainers at the Republican convention are complete unknowns. Country music superstars Brooks & Dunn will take the stage tomorrow, and Thursday Olympic gold medalists Dorothy Hamill, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug will make appearances. Last year's Miss America, Erika Harold, is also on the lineup.

They're all famous, sort of, but none of them project the same star wattage as, say, Affleck, who was trailed by cameras and groupies in Boston. But some say the Republicans, by not lining up superstars, may be on to something.

Rob Long, a Hollywood writer and producer who wrote for Cheers for four seasons, said the star presence made Kerry seem the least interesting person at his convention. And when Ben Affleck introduces Kerry at campaign rallies, "it looks like the most popular kid in school trying to get everyone enthusiastic about the principal," Long said.

"Unless you are a superstar like Bill Clinton, you really don't want to be less famous than the people around you," said Long, who recently wrote for Slate how he was dreading the entertainment at the convention. "You don't want people to think, `Who is that weird-looking guy with Leonardo DiCaprio?' "

Bush, on the other hand, will clearly be the star of his convention. Republican convention organizers didn't return phone calls yesterday, so it's unclear if they couldn't get top celebrities on stage or just didn't want to. But there are several they could have called: Actors Dennis Hopper, Freddie Prinze Jr., Jason Priestley, Shannen Doherty and Kelsey Grammer have all been reported as Bush fans.

And Travis Tritt, Faith Hill, ZZ Top, Martina McBride, Lee Ann Womack and Jonny Lang will be playing at parties and other venues throughout the four-day convention. But you won't find them on stage at Madison Square Garden.

The two musicians scheduled to perform before Bush's acceptance speech Thursday night will be gospel singer Donnie McClurkin and Christian singer Michael W. Smith -- both successful Grammy winners but neither a star outside of their narrow worlds.

But those who do know who those artists are may feel an even stronger attraction to the Republican Party when they see their favorite musicians on the convention stage, said Scott Lindy, the director of country music programming for Sirius satellite radio and former programming director at WPOC-FM in Baltimore.

"It's another way of cross-pollinating a section that may already be in their camp, of solidifying that," Lindy said. But in the end, he doesn't expect the performers to sway voters one way or another. "You're not voting for the music," he said. "You're voting for the leader of the free world."

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