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Politics the Headliner at Capital Show

Times Staff Writer

A dozen high-profile musicians capped a spirited campaign blitz with a nationally televised concert Monday night that brought their drive to unseat President Bush within a few blocks of the White House.

The sold-out show at the MCI Center followed more than a week of barnstorming across battleground states by prominent artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, John Mellencamp and the Dixie Chicks. It represented one of the most ambitious efforts by entertainers to influence a presidential election.

“We are each of us placing yard signs in our front yards,” said Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M., as the show began. “Our front yards just happen to be this stage.”

In all, sponsors said the 33-city, 11-state Vote for Change concert tour raised $15 million for America Coming Together, a group organizing get-out-the-vote drives for Democrats, and identified 300,000 potential new members for the political action committee associated with MoveOn.org, an online liberal advocacy group.

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The shows also generated large amounts of local media coverage in the hotly contested states. And perhaps just as important for the tour’s sponsors, the entertainers made it through without producing incendiary remarks that would have sparked a backlash from the Bush campaign or its allies.

“Everybody talked about [the tour] being Bush-hating or Bush-bashing, but that wasn’t the way it unfolded,” said Bertis Downs, manager for R.E.M. “I don’t think anybody was overbearing on the politics.”

Jim Dyke, communications director for the Republican National Committee, agreed that the artists appeared to avoid controversy during the tour. But he questioned whether their message affected many voters.

“When you are talking about the war on terrorism ... and our economy and these important social issues, it’s no disrespect to them, but I’m just not sure that musicians are going to sway the general population in either direction,” Dyke said.

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Monday’s show attracted two small pockets of protesters. About a dozen people representing the conservative group Free Republic.com held signs accusing the artists of undermining the war on terrorism; one man in a Saddam Hussein mask waved a sign that read, “Rockin’ 4 Osama.” Also, abortion opponents gathered outside MCI Center’s main entrance.

The crowd filing into the concert was more overtly political than at many of the other shows, with nearly as many wearing T-shirts promoting Sen. John F. Kerry’s presidential candidacy as shirts touting the bands.

The tour was unusual in its breadth and strategy. Traditionally, musicians have supported political causes by gathering in big cities for one or two concerts aimed mostly at raising money.

But the Vote for Change tour sent the artists through major battleground states for a coordinated series of 37 shows intended as much to attract publicity as to collect cash. On Oct. 1, the artists descended on Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida for six shows in different cities on a single night; they then dispersed for shows in other states, including Minnesota and Iowa.

The Monday show had been intended to conclude the tour, but Springsteen will lead several of the artists in an additional show Wednesday in his home state of New Jersey. Springsteen decided to add the show after several polls in the state showed Bush running surprisingly close to Kerry.

Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager and one of the tour’s main architects, said he thought its principal political value could be to “inspire part of the [Democratic] base.”

“While its true that the audiences were largely already favorable to the concerns of Vote for Change, I feel that people left these incredible and unified experiences elevated and more fully motivated and involved,” Landau said.

Not all who attended the shows opposed Bush. For instance, at the Oct. 3 show in Detroit -- featuring Springsteen and R.E.M. -- Craig Felhandler, a financial advisor wearing a Springsteen T-shirt, good-naturedly told a MoveOn.org organizer that he couldn’t volunteer. He said he was planning to back Bush because of the president’s aggressive response to terrorism.

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“We have to take action before it gets bad -- that’s why I’m voting for Bush,” he said. “But I love Bruce Springsteen.”

Still, several of the artists said it appeared that most of those attending the concerts endorsed the tour’s political message.

“It was incredibly supportive,” Stipe said. “The energy was coming from the crowd, not from us.”

Ellen Malcolm, president of America Coming Together, said the $15 million the group expected to raise from the concerts amounted to about one-eighth of its total budget. “We will use the money to put together the biggest get-out-the-vote operation the country has ever seen,” she said.

With the artists usually making a recruiting pitch from the stage, MoveOn and America Coming Together attracted hundreds of workers for its get-out-the-vote drives.

Artistically, the shows were noteworthy for the collaborations they produced. Springsteen sang with John Fogerty on Fogerty’s Vietnam-era antiwar song, “Fortunate Son.” Neil Young, who migrated between several of the different concerts, played Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” with Pearl Jam one night and with Springsteen another.

The tour also was notable for its absence of politicians or political leaders. All the political messages -- which were generally low-key and brief -- came from the artists themselves.

Political figures remained on the sidelines even at Monday’s show in Washington, which Downs said fit with the artists’ desire to transmit a personal message to their fans.

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One of the most pointed moments during the concert came when Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks reaffirmed her comment last year that she was “ashamed” Bush came from Texas, her home state.

She said she had been asked if she wanted to apologize for the remark, which caused some radio stations to drop the group’s songs from their playlists. “I thought about it,” she said, “and I thought if I did that, Bush would just call me a flip-flopper.”


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