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Obama and the 'Oprah Effect': can she sway voters?

Winfrey hit the stump for the first time this weekend for Barack Obama.

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Melanie White wasn't paying much attention to the presidential campaign. But when she heard Oprah Winfrey was coming to Des Moines to campaign for Barack Obama, politics suddenly mattered. She wanted to see Oprah.

Her friend Kim Smith, a committed Obama supporter, told her she could get tickets, but there was a price. "She has to sign her life away to volunteer and caucus for Barack," said Ms. Smith.

Ms. White readily agreed. And so the two 30-something friends sat near the front of a line of more than 18,000 waiting to get into the Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines, a copy of "O's Guide to Life" and an "Obama '08" bumper sticker between them.

Call it the "Oprah effect," a phenomenon the political world is watching warily. Not because celebrity endorsements are new, but because Ms. Winfrey is more than a celebrity: She's a social icon, an earth mother, a television priestess of sorts whose predominantly female flock takes her words to heart.

"The problem with most celebrity endorsements is that there's no transferability between their talent and real credibility," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a retail investment banking firm. "Oprah is different. Oprah has an army out there that really listens. She's one of the great marketing machines in history."

Indeed, Winfrey made Spanx girdles a household name, and much to the envy of high school teachers everywhere, she has gotten thousands of people reading Steinbeck and Tolstoy.

But politics isn't soap powder. And as Winfrey rose to the podium in the packed convention hall to stump for a presidential candidate for the first time in her life, the first lady of television made it clear Saturday that she knows the difference.

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