DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Thousands of fans of talk show host Oprah Winfrey or Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama — it was hard to tell which — filled an Iowa convention center on Saturday for the most-hyped event so far of the 2008 White House campaign.
Volunteers, Obama-backers and undecided voters in a crowd of around 18,500 cheered and craned their necks to see daytime TV star Winfrey take the stage with Illinois Sen. Obama, a man Winfrey said would bring strength, conviction, honor and compassion to the White House.
“I’m not here to tell you what to think, I am here to ask you to think seriously about the man who knows who we are and knows who we can be,” Winfrey said. “We need Barack Obama.”
Mounting the stage in a dark suit and open-collared white shirt, Obama thanked the star for her support.
“I am under no illusions,” Obama said. “We’ve had some big crowds in Iowa ... but there’s some people here who are here to see Oprah, and I’m a byproduct of that,” he said, to laughs.
Families, college students and groups of women filed into the cavernous room to see the candidate and the daytime TV star who are both from Chicago and both black.
“I wanted to see both of them, but Oprah sealed the deal, let’s face it,” said Des Moines administrative assistant Sarah Albracht, 35, an undecided voter. Albracht said Winfrey’s endorsement might help convince her to support Obama.
“I like the fact that she’s been in every socioeconomic category ... both wealth and poverty, so yeah, her opinion means more than a lot of other people,” she said.
Susan Cameron, 47, was torn between Obama, rival Sen. Hillary Clinton and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. She said Winfrey’s endorsement would not sway her.
“It’s not really about her, it’s about the candidates — though I really respect her,” Cameron said.
Polls show Obama narrowly ahead of Clinton in Iowa but the New York senator leads nationally with strong appeal among women and blacks.
Obama campaign spokesman Josh Earnest said some 23,000 free tickets had been distributed. Attendees had to provide their name, address and phone number and could trade a promise of four hours of volunteer service for spots closer to the stage.
The rally’s publicity may give Obama an extra burst of momentum in Iowa which on January 3 kicks off voting to choose the Republican and Democratic candidates who will face off in the November 2008 presidential election.
Obama and Winfrey were set to appear together in Cedar Rapids later on Saturday and at events later in the week in South Carolina and New Hampshire — also early voting states.
Local newspaper The Des Moines Register splashed a story entitled “Winfrey’s support means more than most” on its front page and across an entire inside page.
A study by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on Winfrey’s possible impact showed 17 percent of women, 28 percent of blacks and 26 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 would be more likely to vote for a candidate based on her endorsement.
While 69 percent of those surveyed said Winfrey’s choice would have no impact on their vote, 60 percent believed it would help Obama’s campaign.
“She is real buzz, a superstar who is not political, a likable woman — the most admired woman in America. Many people will go to see her and then think about Obama,” said Iowa State University professor Steffan Schmidt.
Winfrey’s position did not sway Irma Hohneke, 69, who attended a Hillary Clinton rally on Friday night but declined tickets to see Winfrey and Obama.
“I’d love to see Oprah but I don’t care about him,” the retired secretary said.
“He’s trying to get her to sway people but, no, her opinion wouldn’t sway me.”
Editing by Alan Elsner;