Dateline Hollywood! Celebrities Go Deep for Dems

LOS ANGELES—After last week’s Democratic debate, Big Love actor Bill Paxton went to a private fund-raiser for Barack Obama at the Avalon, a club on Vine Street in Hollywood.

In a VIP room, Mr. Paxton was relating a story to Mr. Obama’s California campaign manager, Mitchell Schwartz, about an awkward encounter he had with real-life Mormon Mitt Romney.

“He gave me what I call the heave-ho handshake,” said Mr. Paxton, taking Mr. Schwartz’ hand and slinging himself forward to show the way Mr. Romney had rudely dispatched him. Mr. Schwartz, wearing a security-clearance pin on his lapel, laughed and matched Mr. Paxton’s handshake impression with one of his own, making fun of Bill Clinton’s roving eye.

Mr. Paxton offered his services to the campaign, saying he would appear on television, hit the streets or do whatever else needed doing. Mr. Schwartz added him to the list.

In California, celebrity is the companion piece of presidential politics, with the Democratic candidates themselves advertised and evaluated like box office rivals.

This week, as the California primary emerged as the hyper-competitive lodestar of the Super Tuesday states, picking a Democratic nominee became the only project with any buzz.

The Democratic debate last week at the Kodak Theater had all the trappings of an awards show. As Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton performed onstage, the cameras cut to Lou Gossett Jr. and Steven Spielberg and Jason Alexander nodding meaningfully at their words. Fran Drescher, at one point, gave a thumbs-up when Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton pretended to like one another.

When the debate ended, the celebrities spilled into the red-carpeted lobbies while above them, on the third floor, reporters heard from campaign advisers and surrogates in a makeshift spin room. Jonathan Pontell, a professional public speaker with Kato Kalin-like orange hair, instructed a woman in a short red dress (“My name is Citizen Kate, I have my own Web log!” she said) on how to sneak down to the lower level to, as he put it, “schmooze the Hollywood socialites and stars and directors.”

Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco and a Clinton supporter with a Hollywood jaw line and slicked hair, talked about the “buzz, energy, youth, vibrancy” that celebrities lent candidates in Los Angeles. “There is an edginess. All those things. The creative index of life. There is a vibe that’s created, whether you like it or not, when Barack is there with an Oprah Winfrey. There is a vibe that’s created when there is a Leo.”

“We want to see celebrities,” explained Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as he slipped out the back door.

On the lower levels, the celebrities critiqued the evening’s performances.

“Especially as an actor, you read a lot into people’s behavior and how they deal with uncomfortable moments,” said Richard Schiff, a member of the president’s cabinet on The West Wing. He added, “It is better than any reality television out here.”

“What do you think?” he said to his friend Steven Weber, who played one of the brothers on the 1990’s sitcom Wings, and who had stepped into an elevator with him.

“Politicians are performers, they have to act their messages,” said Mr. Weber. “They have to embrace a text.”

Inside the club for the post-debate Obama fund-raiser, Mr. Obama first shook hands with supporters in a special reception room, where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pushed aside shorter supporters to get some face time with the candidate. Mr. Obama then addressed a larger crowd from a stage in front of a giant banner that said “Change.”

“And by the way, when I made that proposal, I didn’t do it in front of the Sierra Club, I didn’t do it in front of this crowd in Hollywood,” he said. “I did it in Detroit in front of the automakers.”

He was, unsurprisingly, a hit. Quentin Tarantino, who wore a snakeskin suit and long pointy shoes, clapped and hooted exuberantly. Greg Germann, who acted on the show Ally McBeal, said Mr. Obama “digs deep.” Joe Mantegna, who described himself as undecided, said the whole town had been energized by the Democratic race.

“I’m old enough to have been around for Kennedy and the whole thing and this reminds me of that,” he said of Mr. Obama. “It’s kind of like Camelot.”

There was a lot of that.

Dateline Hollywood! Celebrities Go Deep for Dems