Can Oprah save Obama?

Call it the “O Factor.” Oprah Winfrey picks a “favorite book” or a “favorite thing,” and poof, it’s a best seller.

And now Winfrey’s “favorite senator,” Barack Obama, hopes the O Factor will work for him, too, as the talk-show host and media icon prepares to campaign for the presidential candidate in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

But can Winfrey’s influence, vast as it is, extend to the political realm? That depends on whether celebrity endorsements, so courted and coveted in modern politics, really mean much at all in the end. But then again, how many celebrities have the reach and the power of Oprah Winfrey?

“Oprah’s in a category of her own,” says Todd Boyd, professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “She’s not a movie star. She’s not a rock star. She’s a brand. She’s one of the few people in the world who can be identified only by one name.”

And yet, with all that, you can’t necessarily extrapolate to politics, says Boyd. “You could argue that she didn’t get to be popular by being political. Politics has never been a big part of her persona. This is not a slam dunk.”

Courting celebrities generally is a mixed bag, say political consultants who’ve been involved in the process. First, there’s the negative perception of Hollywood in some parts of the country as a place full of wealthy liberals out of touch with real concerns. That’s why George Clooney, for example, has kept his support for Obama out of the public realm for now.

“As far as openly campaigning, he thinks it hurts the candidate,” says Clooney spokesman Stan Rosenfield. “You lose the heartland.”

Then there’s the fact that a campaign needs to be cautious. Because, as former political speechwriter Marty Kaplan puts it, “celebrities are always one racy joke or DUI away from an embarrassment.” (In other words, you probably don’t want Paris Hilton campaigning for you. You also might not want actress Whoopi Goldberg, who used a racy sexual pun at a 2004 rally for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.)

“You do have to be careful,” says Stephanie Cutter, who served as Kerry’s communications director in the 2004 campaign. “Celebrities don’t always provide a benefit. If you do an event with them, you own what they’ve produced.”

On the other hand, she says, the right celebrities can build crowds to reach new voters, and provide validation for the candidate. She cites the role played by Bruce Springsteen in the days leading up to the general election, including an event that brought out more than 80,000 people in Wisconsin, a critical swing state.

Did it help fuel Kerry’s narrow victory in the state? “Exit polls don’t track that sort of thing,” Cutter says, “but we do know that tens of thousands of people came out to see John Kerry and Bruce Springsteen in the weeks before the election, and voter contact of that magnitude before an election is priceless.”

In Winfrey’s case, Cutter says, “Iowa caucus-goers, especially women, will likely come in droves to see Oprah. She appeals to a broad demographic. To the extent that she helps bring out new or undecided voters, she’s helping Obama make a direct and personal appeal to them for their vote.” (An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week found Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards locked in a tight race in Iowa, which holds its caucuses Jan. 3.)

A poll conducted in September, not long after Winfrey held a fundraiser for Obama, by the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of respondents, or nearly seven in 10 Americans, would not be influenced by Winfrey’s endorsement of a political candidate. On the other hand, 60 percent believed her support would help Obama, and only 3 percent said it would hurt him.

There’s no question that Winfrey’s status is unique. She’s above Hollywood, straddling the worlds of entertainment, media and philanthropy. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” reaches close to 9 million Americans each day and is syndicated to 135 foreign countries. Then there’s “O,” her magazine, and her Web site. Winfrey’s philanthropy has been well-publicized, especially her funding of a school for girls in South Africa.

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.

With all that, Winfrey’s influence with women viewers — and voters — is surely of concern to the other Democratic candidates, who might have equal-time concerns.

But legally, the show would be on solid ground even if it featured Obama every day (he’s only been on twice). The equal-time provision of the Federal Communications Act provides exemptions to news interview shows, and the FCC has ruled that interview segments on talk shows get the same exemption. As it is, Winfrey says she will not use her platform, only her personal voice, to advocate for Obama.

The Clinton campaign, in an e-mail to The Associated Press, said of Winfrey: “We’re fans and we think it’s great she is participating in the process. Everyone has wonderful supporters, and we’re proud of ours” — such as Steven Spielberg, Magic Johnson and Barbra Streisand, who threw her support behind Clinton on Tuesday.

And of course, Clinton has her husband, Bill, hitting the trail — “arguably as much of a media rock star as Oprah,” says Kaplan, now a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications. “This is the game,” Kaplan says. “And on the Republican side you have Mike Huckabee saying, ‘I’ll see your Oprah and raise you Chuck Norris.'” (Other notable endorsements include Robert Duvall for Rudy Giuliani and, for Edwards, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.)

Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, a former Bill Clinton aide, says that if any celebrity has the potential to make a difference, it’s Winfrey. But he sees most celebrity endorsements as having a “cotton candy effect” — they taste great, then evaporate into thin air.

“If these endorsements really meant something, we’d be wrapping up a second Gore term right now, or a first Kerry term,” said Lehane, referring to all the celebs who supported Democrats in the last two general elections.

Whether or not Winfrey ends up helping Obama, Boyd, the USC professor, suggests that she has little to lose with her loyal fan base. But if Obama were to get elected, he adds, Winfrey has a lot to gain.

“Oprah is very powerful,” Boyd says. “Like most powerful people, she wants to demonstrate her power. She wants to be a kingmaker. If she can get a president elected, that’s a big line on an already long resume.”

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Associated Press Writer Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.