"Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, speaks during a rally in Santa Barbara, Calif. yesterday. He stopped at Santa Barbara City College before a star-studded event at Oprah Winfrey's estate."
MONTECITO, Calif.-Helicopters carrying camera crews buzzed overhead and tinted glass covered the windows of almost every vehicle entering as Oprah Winfrey welcomed 1,500 guests yesterday evening to her sprawling estate in what was the biggest fundraiser of Sen. Barack Obama's political career.
As guests dined on mini-hamburgers, chicken tenders and corn on the cob, Obama bumped elbows with comedians Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg. Stevie Wonder, an Obama favorite, performed.
But it was the joint appearance by Obama and Winfrey, who never before has involved herself in politics in such a large way, that generated the greatest star power of the evening.
"I call my home the Promised Land because I get to live Dr. King's dream," Winfrey told her guests, according to a source inside. "I haven't been actively engaged before because there hasn't been anything to be actively engaged in. But I am engaged now to make Barack Obama the next president of the United States."
The star-studded gathering marked the most visible effort yet for the billionaire media magnate in her effort to help the Illinois Democrat in his quest to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
As Winfrey introduced Obama's wife, Michelle, the hostess called her the "first lady."
At times, Winfrey echoed Obama's stump speech. "How many hours you have spent in the halls of Washington is not the issue," she said, according to the source. "I want a man that has good sense."
Winfrey said she never expected to be involved in a presidential campaign. "When you have been called, no one can stand in the way of destiny," she reportedly said.
Once inside, guests had various levels of access, including seats in the grass on lime-green blankets that had "Obama '08" embroidered on them, a VIP reception and a later, much more exclusive dinner.
Yesterday's gathering was expected to raise more than $3 million. And it might be only the beginning of her support, with television ads featuring Winfrey and even speaking appearances possible.
It is not a simple prospect for any star, especially for one who so jealously guards her brand identity.
She's also testing the boundaries of her power. Winfrey has demonstrated an ability to turn obscure writers into best-sellers and start a top magazine from scratch, yet she has never before tried so tangibly to translate her influence into the political realm.
Some suggest that if any star is well-established enough to risk it, it is Winfrey. She is especially popular with women and African-Americans, crucial demographics for Obama as he competes against front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton, who enjoys solid support from both those groups.
"As a marketer, Oprah's power lies in being able to make her recommendations seem very friendly, like they are coming from a girlfriend," said Kathleen Rooney, who is updating a 2005 book about the influence of Winfrey's book club.
Winfrey, who declined an interview request, has become good friends with both Obama and his wife in the past couple of years.
They didn't really know each other well until the fall of 2004, when Winfrey, inspired by Obama's national convention address, asked to interview the Obamas for her magazine.