Celebrities lend faces to ads in higher campaign profile

The Baltimore Sun

A new political ad featuring actor Michael J. Fox - his body jerking uncontrollably from Parkinson's disease - has touched off an unusual war of celebrity sound bites against the backdrop of the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals fans watching the first game of the baseball championship last week saw Fox, wracked with tremors, urging them to vote for Missouri's Democratic candidate for Senate, Claire McCaskill, who backs a ballot measure to protect embryonic stem cell research.

In response, opponents of the measure rushed to assemble their own celebrity commercial. The 60-second spot was due to air during Game 4 of the World Series last night - and it featured the Cardinals' starting pitcher, Jeff Suppan.

Athletes and actors have long lent their star power to political campaigns. Days after leading the Boston Red Sox to a World Series title in 2004, pitcher Curt Schilling began stumping for President Bush, endorsing him in recorded phone calls to New England voters and appearing by his side at rallies.

Hollywood came out in force for Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry: Danny DeVito drove voters to the polls in Florida, Sharon Stone rallied crowds in Maine and Leonardo DiCaprio hit the campaign trail in Ohio.

But national celebrities don't often take the leap of filming ads for candidates or political causes.

"They give money. They attend fundraisers. But for the most part, they tend not to lend their likeness to political spots," said Evan Tracey, the chief operating officer of TMS Media Intelligence/CMAG, a media analysis firm that tracks political ads.

Fox has been an exception. He filmed ads for Kerry and for the successful California campaign in favor of a ballot initiative promoting stem cell research. (The California campaign also featured a commercial made by paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve just days before his death.)

This year's spot has drawn more attention than the 2004 ads because Fox looks so debilitated. His body jerks so violently in the 30-second spot that conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh mockingly mimicked the tremors and suggested that Fox was exaggerating his symptoms. Limbaugh later apologized, but the uproar over his remarks made the Fox ad the talk of the political world - and prompted thousands of voters to view it online.

Some scientists believe that embryonic stem cell research could produce treatments for such diseases as Parkinson's, a progressive disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain and impairs motor control. Missouri's ballot measure would enshrine the right to conduct such research in the state constitution.

Opponents both in Missouri and on the federal level have sought to block research on embryos because they consider the cluster of cells a human being and recoil at the idea of destroying that nascent life in scientific experiments. Opponents also argue that the research is exploitative because scientists sometimes pay women to donate their eggs.

The Missouri committee opposing the stem cell ballot initiative has emphasized the exploitation argument and also asserted that the measure would open the door to human cloning.

Even before the Fox ad aired, the group had been working with actor James Caviezel, who played Jesus in the film The Passion of the Christ, to identify celebrities who supported their cause. The Fox spot spurred them to hurry their efforts. On Tuesday, they picked up footage from Suppan, who was so eager to help that he videotaped his own remarks, said Austin Ruse, a spokesman for the group Missourians Against Human Cloning.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl in 2000, also joined the effort.

The ad was scheduled to air twice on Missouri TV stations during Game 4. It's a coveted slot for a political ad. But political analyst Tobe Berkovitz said he wasn't sure it would be nearly as effective as the Fox pitch, which tugged at viewers' hearts.

"What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans - Americans like me," said Fox, who has suffered from Parkinson's for 15 years. He has made similar commercials for Democratic candidates in Maryland and Wisconsin.

The ad opposing the ballot initiative is much less emotional. Suppan, Warner, Caviezel and others look directly into the camera and assert that the measure is a fraud that will open the door to human cloning. "Don't be deceived," says Suppan.

Stephanie Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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