The presidential election may be three years away, but for Hollywood--awash in money and political passion--the search for a new leading man has already begun.
For the first time in almost a decade, there is no Democrat in the White House and no heir apparent. The race for 2004 is wide open, and the hopefuls are ardently courting moguls and movie stars from the mansions of Beverly Hills to the studio lots of the San Fernando Valley.
Status-conscious Hollywood, in turn, is seeking someone who looks like a winner.
"The goal is to be held in regard by the candidate and, eventually, the president," said Margaret Cone, a Washington lobbyist for the entertainment industry. "To do that you have to start early, and that's hard because you also want to be right."
For now, there is no shortage of suitors.
With former Vice President Al Gore postponing his political reemergence until the fall, the early attention has been on his running mate in the 2000 campaign, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, and the party's two congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. Meanwhile, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware have made multiple calls on the fund-raising circuit.
And many of the glitterati are abuzz over Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a blow-dried, smooth-talking curiosity who has impressed in his auditions. Edwards recently met with Walt Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner and networked over shrimp rolls during a well-attended political blind date at the Beverly Hills home of Lynn Wasserman, daughter of movie mogul Lew. "Very smart, very likable, very charming," offered one of those who observed the senator up close.
But Hollywood is notoriously fickle and its sentiments fleeting. Whoever wins the industry's blessing is going to have to work for it.
"They'll let people come and do their dance and balance balls on their noses like trained seals," said a veteran Democratic fund-raiser. "They'll throw a little money their way--not much--take a lot of their time, then wait and see where things are moving and flock in one direction."
Bill Clinton forged a relationship with Hollywood like no other president, raking in money and endorsements that helped offset the largess of corporate interests on the Republican side. Collectively, Hollywood poured more money into the 2000 presidential race than the automotive and tobacco industries combined--just under $2 million, with two-thirds of it going to Democrats.
Wooing Hollywood is a demure dance played out at swank cocktail parties and power lunches. Politicians with veiled intentions drop a handkerchief in the hope that someone rich or famous picks it up. The idea is to meet now and solicit later.
"Most [of the potential candidates] are trying to make sure the relationships are there and strong so if they do decide to run, there are a lot of relationships they can count on," said a Hollywood political fund-raiser who, like most, insisted candor required anonymity.
A sort of box office fever colors Hollywood's approach to politics. It did not go unnoticed that Eisner backed a loser the last time around--former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey--or that it was DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg who rode in Gore's limousine at the party's Los Angeles convention.
"That's their psyche to begin with: They don't want to be seen at dinner with someone whose show is 67th this week," said TV producer and political commentator Lawrence O'Donnell. "That's what they liked about Clinton more than anything else. Clinton always won."
It is too soon for the frenetic rounds of fund-raising that ultimately consume candidates as the pace of the campaign quickens. For now, discretion requires that no would-be contender appear too eager or overtly ambitious. (President Bush, after all, is still settling into office.)
Gore, still at the center of the greatest speculation, made a postelection thank-you tour of Southern California, where he seemed to be thinking less about the last campaign than about the next one.
But like a lot of Democrats elsewhere, many Hollywood activists are conflicted over Gore, some believing he squandered a priceless opportunity by losing last year and others asserting he was robbed of the presidency.
"People who were helping Gore feel a little bruised and battered. They need a little down time before people go out and make noises about '04," said one Democratic fund-raiser.
Marge Tabankin, an activist in the entertainment community, added that many former Gore backers are growing impatient with his reticence.
"They are going to look at the whole field," Tabankin said. "It's such an open time for the Democrats, and Bush looks beatable. Nobody is going to sit this one out."
But Hollywood's friendship is not the unalloyed benefit it once was. The entertainment industry has become as much a political issue as a political force.
"Hollywood bashing is 'in' right now. . . ," said one Southern California Democratic operative with many friendships in the entertainment community.
Lieberman, in particular, has tried to walk a line between courting Hollywood and curbing what he sees as some of its excesses.
His generally well-regarded performance as Gore's running mate established him as one of the early front-runners for 2004. And his history-making role as the first Jew to run on a major party ticket would seem to have special appeal among the industry's many Jewish leaders.
But he faces a significant hurdle in Hollywood, where his attacks on media sex and violence have antagonized many in that vital Democratic constituency. In a decidedly uphill attempt to mend fences, Lieberman lunched with studio executives at the Beverly Hilton in April, an overture Variety called "Joe's Frosty Foray."
"He never said he was anti-Hollywood. . . . This isn't a social crusade," said Tom Nides, who managed Lieberman's vice presidential campaign. "It's just like any industry. You have people who don't play by the same rules other people do. Sometimes they need prodding. Sometimes they need more than prodding."
But the cost of Lieberman's critique is a mounting backlash from an industry that doesn't care to be blamed for all manner of cultural sins.
"Lieberman is a weird calculation. He clearly thinks he can slam the entertainment industry and still ask it for money," said a Washington film industry lobbyist. "It's worth noting that Bush has been hands-off on Hollywood. I don't think that lets Bush carry Hollywood by any measure, but it may leave some looking for the Democrat who doesn't bash."