Parties Bask in Reflected Glamour ; in an Era of Image-Conscious Politics, Both Sides Avidly Seek Hollywood's 'Star Power.'

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Celebrities who mug and wave. Celebrities who hug and boogie. Celebrities who stand behind your cause, and behind your left (or right) shoulder on the podium.

From Bo Derek, Bruce Willis, and Chaka Khan fronting the Republicans in Philadelphia to Melissa Etheridge, Dylan McDermott, and Luther Vandross here at the Democratic confab, stars have become to politics what product placements are to major movies: marketing ploys to win viewers, add cachet, and humanize abstract themes.

While the ploy has been a standard feature of American politics for decades, it is reaching new dimensions with the 2000 election, as celebrity and politics become ever more intertwined. Not only are more stars available for photo ops at the Staples Center here, but dozens of top Hollywood figures are hosting off-site fundraising dinners, music parties, and teas.

"I got invited to a party with several leading politicos from Congress and the White House, and I asked the host, 'Oh yeah, who's gonna be there?' " recalls Joe Cerrell, a veteran Democratic strategist based in Hollywood. "The guy said, 'Fabio.' I said, 'No, no, no. Who are the politicians?' "

Such anecdotes are multiplying as both major political parties intensify their efforts to lure top celebrities. A major activity - some say the major activity - in Los Angeles this week is the scores of fundraisers at homes of stars ranging from Barbra Streisand to Melanie Griffith. Businessmen, lobbyists, stars, and others are guaranteed access to politicians from Congress to the White House in exchange for donations of $50,000 and up.

Behind closed doors

Such events feed the gossip machine (which stars favor which party?), but they also focus the spotlight on important issues of fairness, access to power, and money trails.

"We think these [parties] raise issues of fairness because a whole cross-section of middle Americans has no access to these soirees," says Sheila Krumholz of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. Such events, she adds, foster privacy and exclusivity. "Our principal wish is transparency - who is there, what are they getting. When voters know these things, they can make their decisions accordingly at the ballot box."

Ever since President Ronald Reagan left office, Republicans have been bested by Democrats in the "duelling celebrity" contest. Democrats have consistently raised more money in Hollywood and enlisted a higher magnitude of star power. In 1999, of $19 million given to political parties by entertainment and the arts, two- thirds went to Democrats.

But some say the GOP is now working harder than before to close that gap - and it appears to be working. Of money given to the two presidential candidates, Al Gore's margin is far less than that for the overall Democrat-Republican margin: $906,000 for Gore in 1999- 2000, compared with $712,000 for George W. Bush.

Celebrity duels

The growing tug-of-war between the two major parties over who gets whom and how the stars are deployed explains much about the currents of influence in the changing scene of American politics, observers say.

"People watching these conventions tend to forget that party allegiance in democratic electoral politics is increasingly replaced by media," says Robert Dawidoff, a historian at Claremont Graduate University in southern California. …