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For stargazers, one bright light

But have no doubt: Chuck Norris, the sole celebrity, has enough star-power in his pinkie to pull the Earth out of orbit.

By SHARON FINK, Times Staff Writer
Published November 29, 2007

Newly elected St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton and his wife, Melissa, enjoy the Google party at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg after the Republican debate Wednesday. The event mostly failed to bring celebrities to town, but there were a few look-alikes.
[Willie J. Allen, Jr. | Times]

[Martha Rial | Times]
Television and movie star Chuck Norris supports Mike Huckabee in the Spin Room at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg after the debate Wednesday.

ST. PETERSBURG - The Republicans went head-to-head with Christmas in the Tampa Bay area's battle of star power Wednesday night.

The GOP had Chuck Norris working the crowd for Mike Huckabee at the presidential debate at the Mahaffey Theater.

Christmas had Wynonna singing holiday songs at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

Christmas won this showdown because Wynonna would make a great action star, and no one wants to hear Norris warble White Christmas.

The Republicans could have claimed a key election-season glitz victory if they had attracted just one more celebrity - A-list, Z-list, wouldn't have mattered - to their debate extravaganza.

But no other famous person was spotted, or expected, at the Mahaffey, several predebate gatherings or the after party hosted by debate sponsors, CNN, YouTube and Google.

The after party had the most potential. It had a layout that combined nightclub, lounge and kitchen vibe; lots of free food and swag, and waiters who looked like models and actors. But the big early star was the swag, which included CNN baseball hats, Rubik's Cubes with the Google logo and YouTube puzzles.

Word was that Google chairman and chief executive Eric Schmidt was in town, but, at least early on, a party organizer said he hadn't put in an appearance.

Before the debate, about 100 people milled around the back of the Parkshore Grill at 5:30 p.m., waiting for John McCain, but the closest anyone came to being a celebrity was a man who looked like actor Tim Robbins without the gray hair. (Maybe the staunch Democrat was working undercover?)

McCain, who has racked up a few appearances on The Daily Show, did his best to compensate in his eight-minute speech. He signed a few autographs, posed for pictures, cracked a few jokes ("As Mayor Daley of Chicago said, vote early and often") and mentioned an interview he did for MTV.

He should have brought along Jon Stewart to be his MC.

At the GOP straw poll and debate-watching party in Vinoy Park, the best star-spotting was in the sky. On the ground, bay area musician Bobby Palermo, in a baseball cap and black sequined jacket, was channeling Neil Diamond to sing for the crowd ("Do we have any Americans here tonight?" was his shout-out before launching into Diamond's America). But no real Neil.

The Mitt Romney table got a lot of attention when the candidate's five sons showed up, but Laurie Pizzo, co-chair of the Romney campaign in Hernando County, said that as far as they knew, no nonpolitical celebrities were here to support Romney.

She did say that her husband, John, who also was at the Romney table, gets compared to an actor who once played David Copperfield. (Brit Hugh Dancy is the most recent, in a TV movie, and there is a resemblance between the two.)

Ron Paul's faithful gathered at the Palladium Theater, and the closest thing to a celebrity presence was the CNN news scroll running across the bottom of a large-screen TV. It mentioned Emeril Lagasse, Miss Puerto Rico and O.J. Simpson. So they were there in spirit.

Same story at a publicized Rudy Giuliani debate-watching party at Midtown Sundries Restaurant and Sports Bar. About 30 people were there by 8:30, and the biggest attraction for four of them was a pool table.

Times staff writer Dave DeCamp contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 29, 2007, 01:27:08]

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