On the Spot: Star Power in Ohio

Gerald Austin has a plan for Ohio, a way to pull in desperately needed votes for the Kerry campaign in the tightly contested state. Deeply involved in Ohio politics for more than 30 years, Austin knows the state inside and out. But as often happens in big elections, the national campaigns send in outsiders to run things and the local smarts aren't always used to their best advantage. But Austin took matters into his own hands. With actor/producer Fisher Stevens and Ohio native Chad Lowe, they created Bring Ohio Back (BOB), which calls itself "the only Ohio-based 527 organization to educate Ohioans about the failure of the Bush administration and its impact on the lives of Buckeye state residents."

This is not your typical faceless 527, but one that has attracted some of Hollywood's biggest talent, not just to lend their name and money, but to actually trek into the state and engage the voters face-to-face. On Friday night, Austin and Stevens were in L.A. at the Hollywood Hills home of Bruce Cohen, producer of "American Beauty," raising last-minute dough to shoot TV commercials for the final push in Ohio. And some of the stars who have done the heavy lifting in Ohio, like Steve Buscemi, Gina Gershon, Marisa Tomei and Daphne Zuniga – who's on the TV show "American Dreams" – also showed up to tell their on-the-ground stories. An added treat and a real coup, music star Elvis Costello was also present – before moving on to perform at the Viper Room after the party to help fill BOB's coffers.

The BOB plan focuses on the economically devastated northeast Ohio, particularly Youngstown and Cleveland. Reasons Austin, "Gore got 140,000 votes less than Clinton in this area, in part because he bailed on the state in the last week of the campaign. We can make up those votes."

Fisher Stevens told the crowd their money was for the air war in Ohio. A recent Gallup poll – and they are the conversative pollsters – showed Kerry ahead 50-44 percent among registered voters, but it shrunk to 45-44 percent among likely voters. He told the audience about widespread fearmongering ads that claimed that ACT, the big voter contact group, had hired felons – even murderers – to go knocking on doors. Stevens mentioned the recent news that Ohio Republicans are sending in a horde of hired lawyers to hassle voters at the polls. Austin added that "the state of Ohio has lost 37 percent of the jobs lost in the entire country during the Bush administration."

But as everyone knows by now, job loss doesn't necessarily translate to votes, or Bush wouldn't still be considered Ohio's front runner at this late date. Wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage and voters' collective emotional state are playing major roles in the voter-candidate equation.

I talked with some of the actors about their experiences in the field. Tomei was very upbeat about her voter encounters. "I would ask people what was the most important thing in the election for them," she explained, "and then zoom in on that and talk it through. There are always ways to connect with people. If I could go one on one with all the voters – we could win," she said with a big smile.

Gina Gershon had a somewhat different experience, and described visiting a bowling alley in Youngstown and encountering despairing voters. "One talked about losing a factory job after thirty years – his attitude was 'Why bother? What difference does it make?' It's not easy motivating that voter, except to remind them that every vote counts."

Daphne Zuniga described an encounter with a woman who wanted a picture taken of Zuniga with her and her daughter. Daphne noticed that woman was wearing a Bush-Cheney button. "Hey, what's that about?" she asked the woman, going on to say, "I think Kerry is the better candidate." The woman explained: "They are going to give my kids sex education in school without telling me," a generalized fear having nothing to do with the Kerry campaign, and one which caught Zuniga off guard. Zuniga offered that she had had some sex education when she was in school, and that it had been helpful – and perhaps it wasn't going to be done in secret. The woman admitted that she, too, had sex education, and then added – "I don't think it is really true anyway." Score one for Kerry? Perhaps.

In many cases these three committed, informed stars, each dealing with the voters in their way – Tomei with her passion, Gershon with empathy and Zuniga with her thoughtfulness – encountered something hard to pin down: Let's call it the fear factor.

That's why these women and many at the party were buzzing after Arianna Huffington talked about the psychological fear issues in the campaign. She said: "This is an election between hope and fear and Kerry and Edwards are offering hope while the main message from the Republicans is fear. Fear is how Bush is still in the race. Voters are shrouded in a 'fog of fear' that is impacting the way our brains respond to the two candidates. Thanks to the Bush campaign's unremitting fearmongering, millions of voters are reacting not with their linear and logical left brain but with their lizard brain and their more emotional right brain. This is especially true of Dick Cheney, who has proven himself an unmatched master of the dark art of fearmongering."

In fact, on the campaign trail Cheney has continued to threaten Americans with the baseless claim that "the biggest threat we face today is the possibility of terrorists smuggling a nuclear weapon or a biological agent into one of our own cities and threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans."

Huffington wrapped up: "If 9/11 was a day of fear, 9/12 was a day of hope when powerful spirit was unleashed and millions of people went about supporting each other. We need to be tapping into that feeling of hope, telling voters: 'You are going to be OK.'"

As the guests were beginning to make their move to the second stage of the party, Austin was upbeat. "The money raised at the benefit is being immediately plowed into TV in two markets – Cleveland and Youngstown." He said that the team was returning to Ohio on Sunday for a commercial shoot with John Glenn and Martin Sheen – "an American icon and an American president," as someone joked. Austin continued, "There are more than 48,000 MoveOn members in Ohio and they are active. The Dean people have been great. Bus loads of people are coming into the state from Chicago and other places to help. I think we'll win this thing."

Later that evening at the Viper Club, Bobby Kennedy Jr. motormouthed an avalanche of facts and stats for 20 minutes, seemingly without taking a breath. The performance clearly impressed the audience, but left some people feeling that they were probably close to death due to mercury poisoning. Kennedy said he yearned for real market capitalism, not the rapacious corporate version in effect in the Bush administration; real market capitalism would lead to a true democracy. Clearly Kennedy has not been schooled in "the facts will not set us free" perspective, as the BOB participants had discovered in Ohio. Even the denizens of the Viper Room, some of whom paid a donation of $1,000 to be there, also need some vision and hope for the future, mixed with the bad news and hard numbers.

Elvis Costello, who was a little embarrassed at the fact that he is unable to vote, being English, allowed that "maybe [he] shouldn't being saying too much," was charming, and rocked hard, despite a hoarse voice. He mentioned one of his band members coming from Bakersfield, Calif. who was voting for sure, and then said: "I wonder, even when Kerry gets elected can Bush still be impeached? I would love [for] him to be humiliated after all he's done."

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