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U2's Bono Wows Bigwigs at Elite Economic Forum

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rock-star activist Bono has emerged as the insider's favorite outsider at the World Economic Forum.
The lead singer of best-selling Irish rock band U2 has lent an air of popular legitimacy and urgency to this week's gathering of the world's rich and powerful that prime ministers and top corporate chieftains only wish they could attract.
``I really believe if we all gather forces on this and we don't create easy bad guys and good guys on this ... we can make progress,'' Bono told a news conference here on Saturday.
``The great thing about hanging out with Republicans is that it's very unhip for both of us. There's a parity of pain here,'' Bono said referring to his newfound conservative party friends.
As a tireless campaigner for debt relief for the world's poorest nations, Bono has gained unprecedented access and a new public platform for his cause by mixing here with conservative U.S. politicians and top pharmaceutical CEOs.
Wearing blue wrap-around sunglasses and an open-collar checked shirt, Bono stands out sharply from the pinstriped suits and ties that are the uniform of the most of the summit's 2,700 attendees.
``It's more difficult than you might imagine to get attention for these issues. Hence the unusual juxtapositions you are seeing on this issue,'' he told reporters during a news conference where he shared the stage with the world's richest man, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, to demand greater health care funding.
Recognizing the discomfort of U.S. conservative politicians with foreign aid that seems to achieve little, Bono has been at pains to seek common ground, trading his typical street-smart bravado for a sometimes tortured diplomacy.
He has injected excitement into proceedings dominated by top-level economic discussion of glum global economic conditions and endless backroom meetings by Middle East shuttle diplomats that have yet to show any signs of movement toward peace.
Meanwhile, outside the ritzy hotel where the conference is located, a mix of young students and older protest veterans numbering at least 3,000 waved signs decrying the ``World Exploitation Forum,'' and calling on leaders to ``End the War.''
Several leading critics of the forum's elite status have declined invitations to participate, with some instead choosing to attend the alternative World Social Forum, being held in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
In one of the stranger marriages of radical chic and conservative politics, Bono surprised delegates at a workshop on poor country debt relief by announcing he would visit Africa with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in March.
Basking in the glow of sudden mutual admiration, O'Neill talked easily about ``my good friend Bono.'' At the panel's close, well-heeled participants flocked to the edge of the stage to collect the rocker's autograph.
Bono, who recently traveled to Africa, said debt relief had already produced results in Uganda, where the number of children enrolled in school has tripled. He said he hopes to make this case to travel partner O'Neill on his return trip.
The rock star and Catholic social activist complained that years of campaigning for debt relief had achieved little until he captured headlines by appearing in a joint call for action with Pope John Paul II.
Appearing shoulder-to-shoulder with billionaire Gates at a news conference here, an exuberant Bono declared: ``I'm here with the pope of stir debate among people who come from such different backgrounds.''
He has found time to sit down with the corporate heads of drug companies Merck & Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. to discuss making it easier and cheaper for countries to gain access to expensive AIDS drugs.
``I don't think they (the big pharmaceutical companies) are the bete noir that all my friends think. I think they need to make profits, we need to do research,'' Bono said.
``I think the outside finally came inside,'' Charles McLean, chief spokesman for the World Economic Forum, told reporters at a news briefing on Friday referring to Bono's move from protest gadfly to man of the moment.
Moving easily from the rarified world of the high and mighty, Bono is headed to New Orleans to appear with U2 as the main attraction during the halftime celebrations at the Super Bowl, the U.S. football championship. By Eric Auchard
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