Tight House Races Get Star Power

Clooney, Paterno, Bird, Sheen: The guest list at a party for Hollywood "A"-listers and sports legends? No, just some of famous names running for House seats or helping House candidates around the country.

The most talked-about is Democrat Nick Clooney (search), father of actor George, the former "ER" doctor and "Ocean's Eleven" star, and brother of the late singer Rosemary Clooney. Nick Clooney — famous in his own right for introducing films on American Movie Classics — is competing against Republican businessman Geoff Davis for an open seat in Kentucky's 4th District, a tight race in the state's northern suburbs near Cincinnati.

Scott Paterno (search), Penn State football coach Joe Paterno's son, is challenging six-term Democratic incumbent Tim Holden in Pennsylvania's 17th District, hoping his father's reputation with the Nittany Lions will boost his candidacy.

Actor Martin Sheen, known to millions of viewers as President Josiah Bartlet on the "The West Wing," has stumped for Democrat Beth Troutman (search) in North Carolina's 8th District, while cast members have contributed to her campaign.

Larry Bird, the basketball legend from Indiana State and the Boston Celtics, has helped raise money for scout-turned-candidate Jon Jennings in Indiana's 8th District. Jennings is trying to unseat five-term Republican Rep. John Hostettler.

As the political parties search for candidates with some name recognition, or those who have some star power in fund raising or on the campaign trail, relatives and friends of celebrities are being tapped for races, said Norman Ornstein, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

"The parties are trying to come up with candidates who have something that gives them traction," said Ornstein. He referred to it as "icing on the cake, but it'll never be the cake itself."

Being George Clooney's father has meant thousands of campaign dollars for Nick, with such film stars as Michael Douglas, Warren Beatty, Renee Zellweger and Drew Barrymore contributing to the Kentucky Democrat.

But aligning yourself with Hollywood's top draws also has some downsides, especially in conservative districts such as the one Clooney hopes to represent. Davis has tried to link Clooney to the liberal politics of his son and his Hollywood friends. "Those types of views, of positions, don't sell well in this district," Davis said.

Clooney said, "I don't think that will stick." A well-known former local television anchor and newspaper columnist, Clooney said voters "know who I am, and they know where I come from."

Clooney said voters often ask about his movie star son but then move on to other matters.

George Clooney declined, through a spokesman, to comment but said in a letter to The Cincinnati Enquirer that he and his dad have political differences and that his father "has earned the right to be judged on his own merits." The actor has made several fund-raising appearances for his father in Washington and Los Angeles but has largely steered clear of campaigning in Kentucky.

Attorney Scott Paterno plays up his family ties, even handing out autographed photos of his dad and leaning on him for fund-raising help. But he faces a tough challenge to unseat Holden in the central Pennsylvania district that includes Harrisburg.

Republican Reps. Robin Hayes of North Carolina and John Hostettler of Indiana also are thought to be on pretty safe ground, even though their Democratic opponents have received help from the likes of Sheen and Bird.

Troutman recently campaigned in a North Carolina mill town with Sheen, and while cast members have donated money to her candidacy, Hayes had nearly $1 million on hand, compared to roughly $40,000 Troutman had at the end of September.

Jennings, a Midwest scout for the Celtics, has outraised Hostettler with the help of Bird and others, but political observers still consider Jennings the underdog.

"A candidate's connection to fame or notoriety is a mixed bag in most cases," said Greg Speed, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it hurts. More often than not these races are decided on other factors."