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Eastwood’s ‘Invisible Obama’ skit amuses some, confuses others


TAMPA, Fla. — The Republicans launched their prime-time introduction to their presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, with a surprise guest. But actor and director Clint Eastwood’s more than 10 minutes on the national stage turned into an odd set-piece that featured the 82-year-old talking to an empty chair on the stage, meant to represent President Obama.

It was unclear whether the unusual gambit delivered the Republican nominee what his handlers must have intended — a dose of Eastwood’s credibility — as it proved a diversion from the pinnacle moment that the former Massachusetts governor had worked more than six years to achieve.

The craggy performer took some hard shots at Obama (for permitting the “national disgrace” of 23 million unemployed) and Vice President Joe Biden (“a grin with a body behind it”) that stirred up Republicans inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

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But it was hard to know how the appearance, with its oddly muted words for Romney and running mate Paul D. Ryan, would resonate with those outside the hall, particularly the small number of voters yet to pick between Romney and the president.

The Hollywood icon appeared just after 10 p.m. Eastern time to a roar from the crowd, a colorized image of his role as “The Outlaw Josey Wales” towering on a screen beside the stage. Eastwood laughed at the huge reception and told the crowd, “Save a little for Mitt.”

He rambled a bit about how there actually were some conservatives in Hollywood before mocking the election night celebration that greeted Obama four years ago. He described tearful celebrants, including Oprah Winfrey, and said, “I haven’t cried that hard since I found out there is 23 million unemployed people in this country.”

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“Now that is something to cry about because that is a disgrace, a national disgrace, and we have not done enough. This administration has not done enough to cure that,” Eastwood said. “Whatever interest they have is not strong enough and I think, possibly now, it might be time for someone else to come along and solve the problem.

“I think it’s time, maybe, for a businessman, a stellar businessman,” Eastwood said. He added, addressing the phantom Obama on the stage: “And I think it’s that time. And and I think if you just step aside, Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan can take over.”

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Toward the end of his performance, which cut deeply into the hour of prime time promised by the television networks to the Republicans, Eastwood repeated his displeasure with Obama. “When somebody doesn’t do the job,” Eastwood said, “you got to let them go.” That brought a huge round of applause, and Eastwood responded by pointing the invisible Obama off the stage.

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Another awkward moment came when Eastwood hit the president for maintaining the war in Afghanistan and not noticing how the Russians “did there for 10 years.” The war has generally been supported by Republicans after being started in 2001 by President George W. Bush.

The performance came to an end when Eastwood complied with an audience shout-out for him to say his signature line, “Make my day!” The crowd joined in in booming voices and, with a slight bow, Eastwood left the stage.

Obama advisors seemed befuddled. “Wow,” top Obama aide Stephanie Cutter tweeted. “What the heck IS this?” Obama strategist David Axelrod added via the micro-blogging site.

A bit later, Axelrod noted the oddity of Eastwood’s shot at the Afghan war, given Romney’s position. “That screaming you hear backstage is poor Clint,” the top Obama advisor said via Twitter, “when they told him Mitt wants U.S. to stay in Afghanistan INDEFINITELY.”

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At least some of those inside the convention hall seemed to take the performance in stride.

“Funny and charming,” said Charlie Tetrick, a guest of the Kansas delegation, who was on the floor for the speech. “The best thing about him is you never know what to expect.” She brushed off the faux interview of the president: “It changed the pace of things a little bit.”

“I’m more excited to hear from the actual candidates,” said Christie Kriegshauser, a delegate from Kansas who watched from high in the arena. “I’m not a pop-cultural person. Politics is my thing.”

Organizers of the GOP convention had been teasing journalists and delegates all week about the “mystery” slot on Thursday night’s convention agenda. By earlier in the day word leaked out that Eastwood was in Tampa.

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But the appearance of the angular, sandpaper-voiced star/director (who delivered gems like “Dirty Harry,” “Gran Torino” and “Million Dollar Baby”) still surprised some inside the arena.

Eastwood had endorsed the former Massachusetts governor at a fundraiser in Sun Valley, Idaho, this month. He said then that he believed Romney could create “a decent tax system” in which people “are not pitted against one another,” as to who is paying taxes and who isn’t.

Other than a turn in the nonpartisan position of mayor of Carmel, Calif., in the 1980s, Eastwood has been reticent about politics. Though known to lean Republican, he hasn’t spent a lot of time on the fundraising or speech-making circuit. He voted for GOP nominee John McCain four years ago.

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The Hollywood icon inadvertently ended up in the midst of a political furor earlier this year. The controversy followed his appearance in a powerful black-and-white television ad for Chrysler. Called “Halftime in America” and aired during the Super Bowl in February, it featured Eastwood’s classic growl.

He told the audience (of as many as 110 million people) that America “can’t be knocked out with one punch.” The actor also described a country on the mend. “I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life, times when we didn’t understand each other,” he said. “It seems that we’ve lost our heart at times — the fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one.”

The tag line: “Yeah, it’s halftime, America. And our second half is about to begin.”

Conservative commentators fumed that Eastwood seemed to be supporting the auto industry bailout and, thus, the Democratic president. GOP strategist Karl Rove accused Chrysler of making the ad to repay the Democratic administration for billions in bailout dollars.

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An Eastwood associate said at the time that the Chrysler ad contained no hidden meaning and was merely meant “to inspire people to take pride in their country.” Eastwood had told the Los Angeles Times in 2010 that he opposed “bailing out the banks and car companies.” He added: “If a CEO can’t figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn’t be the CEO.”

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James.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesrainey

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