Forget the candidates, it's really Paul Newman versus Madonna

The race for votes in Iowa is tightening by the day - and so is the chase by the Democratic candidates for celebrity endorsements. They may not change many minds but the battle for them oddly mirrors the real thing on the campaign trail.

The clear frontrunner in the endorsement stakes - at least until these past few days - has been Howard Dean. Apart from heavyweight politicians such as Al Gore and Iowa's home senator Tom Harkin, a clutch of Hollywood luminaries have rallied to the former Vermont governor's banner. Among them are Martin Sheen (player of the fictional President Josiah Bartlet in NBC's The West Wing), Michael Douglas, Paul Newman, Robin Williams and Susan Sarandon.

But, in recent days, Wesley Clark and John Kerry have been closing the gap, just as they have been narrowing Dean's poll leads in New Hampshire and Iowa respectively.

General Clark has attracted backers as different as Madonna and Sherron Watkins, the whistleblower in the Enron scandal. Other "Clarkies" include Alan Alda and Christopher Guest.

John Kerry, too, has both political and Hollywood types lining up behind him - among them his fellow Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy, former ambassador Joe Wilson (the whistleblower on Iraq's non-existent nuclear programme), as well as the actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Uma Thurman.

Even the stodgy and pizazz-free Richard Gephardt has raked in some of the glitterati, such as Barry Manilow and Chevy Chase. But the dark horse is Dennis Kucinich, the elfin-like Congressman from Ohio. His ultra liberal, get-the-troops-home platform has the support of the likes of Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and Danny Glover among others.

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