What are the things we learned – or should have learned – from Oprah Winfrey’s recent appearances at campaign rallies for Barack Obama? First and foremost, one of the richest and most powerful women in America says it’s OK not to vote for a woman. Next, her drawing power is enormous: an 18-thousand seat venue had to be upgraded to a stadium that seats 80-thousand. She also scared the bejesus out of the Clinton camp, forcing Hillary to trot out daughter Chelsea as a drawing card. The Clinton camp’s panic was further demonstrated when it accepted the endorsement of Barbara Streisand (more on that in a moment). And, finally, opinion polls indicated that very few voters plan to switch to Hillary on the basis of Oprah’s appearance at three Obama rallies.

The theme of Oprah’s endorsements is, as she said in Des Moines, she hadn’t stepped forward to endorse a candidate before because of her cynicism about politics in general. But Barack Obama’s candidacy is so encouraging that she couldn’t hold back any longer. “We must respond to the pressures and the fortunes of history when the moment strikes, and Iowa, I believe that moment is now,” she said. The “Double-O” bandwagon then rolled onto Columbia, South Carolina and Manchester, New Hampshire.

Along the way, the Obama people took down the names of thousands of those who showed up to see and hear the Double-Os. In less than 24 hours, campaign workers had contacted most of the audiences, asking for contributions and volunteers. Some political pundits believe that action may be worth more than the $3-million fund-raiser for Obama that Oprah hosted at her Santa Barbara mansion in September.

To purify her underwriting of Obama, Oprah declared that she will have no other presidential candidates on her TV show. That program, broadcast five days a week, reaches over 40-million viewers and has the power to put books on the best seller lists and create new diet and exercise regimens. Combine the power of her TV program with Oprah’s magazines and web sites, and a commitment from her becomes a virtual canonization.

Over at the Clinton camp there was, as we noted, a hastily scheduled appearance by daughter Chelsea. Overshadowing that was the ready acceptance of an endorsement by Barbara Streisand, an action described by The Wall Street Journal as “just another episode of the Democratic Party’s long-running series of superstar superficiality.” In what can only be described as an act of desperation, the Clinton camp embraced the affirmation of “the polarizing, ‘60s-studded Streisand – in essence, the anti-Oprah.” The Journal continued: “In doing so, the Clinton camp did not just fail to blunt or dilute the O-factor, they managed to accentuate it by unwittingly suggesting Mrs. Clinton stands for – like the Streisand anthem – the way we were.”

To be sure, there was a backlash of sorts from some prominent African-American voters, calling the Oprah endorsement a “publicity stunt.” As Columbia, South Carolina’s 80-thousand seat football stadium was filling to capacity, state representative Leon Howard said it was insulting for anyone to think that African-Americans are automatically onboard with Barack Obama. Many black voters in South Carolina support native son John Edwards who has been campaigning on the issues of poverty and health care disparities – matters of fundamental significance to most African-Americans.

The question remains, when the election is held eleven months from now, will the residual effect of Oprah’s endorsements in December of 2007 help Barack Obama become our commander-in-chief? Will Oprah Winfrey’s validation of him today convince voters of a distant tomorrow that Obama is truly ready for the presidency? The strategy of the Clinton campaign (when it is not star-struck by the likes of Streisand) is to plant in voters’ minds grave doubts about Obama’s aptitude for the highest office in the land. Polls and focus groups continue to corroborate that Obama’s readiness to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue remains the uncertainty that could cost him the election, if he survives the primaries and nominations.


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