Tom Cruise Either Losing Popularity Or New Jesus ChristA USA Today/Gallup poll showing that Tom Cruise's "favorability rating" had tumbled 23 points since last year has induced some of the actor's best pals to scramble to his defense:

• "He spent years not speaking about his private life, not discussing his Scientology beliefs and was criticized for that. He made the decision to talk about such topics, and now he is prodded into saying certain things. He answers the questions put to him." —Paula Wagner, Cruise's longtime production partner

• "The reason we made Mission is that Tom is clearly the most profitable and substantial movie star in the world. We made $118 (million) worldwide. I don't know, but where I come from, that is a lot of money. If Tom Cruise is doing a picture, I want to talk about it. I would absolutely make a fourth Mission." —Brad Grey, chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures

Grey does make an excellent point. $118 million is a lot of money, even if you're the head of a studio whose job depends on sounding upbeat in the face of crushing disappointment. Many, many executives in Hollywood would sell their mothers into white slavery for the 57th biggest domestic opening weekend of all time, so it's reassuring to see that he's keeping a sense of perspective by publicly green-lighting another sequel.

But opinions of people with a significant stake in Cruise's continuing popularity notwithstanding, the superstar's trip to screen M:i:III for a contest winner in Aberdeen, Washington offers something of a conflicting view on the erosion of the actor's standing with fans. Sure, there was a smattering of sullen, flannel-clad suppressives present at the event, but according to this Seattle Times report, they seemed outnumbered by those who looked to Cruise to "put us on the map," or in a slightly more optimistic case, deliver unto them the promise of eternal life:

Standing nearby, Ginny Thompson, 37, had taken the day off from the Sears store in the mall, hoping to get a Cruise autograph in her collector's edition of People Magazine's "100 Greatest Movie Stars of Our Time."

She said she knows the meaning of Cruise's visit. She said it will stop Aberdeen from being a dying town. That's been a worry here for a decade, at least, since the collapse of the timber industry and lingering unemployment problems.

"There's a lot of poverty here," she said.

How will Cruise fix that?

"Look, you're here from Seattle, right?" she said to a visitor. "This will put us on the map." [...]

But would an argument — though certainly good-natured — break out at a downtown store about the significance of a Hollywood visitor to Seattle?

It happened here Tuesday in the Salvation Army store in the threadbare downtown.

"I had to tell my niece to stop obsessing about Tom Cruise," said Laura Eaton, 25, a clerk at the store. "I'm trying to get into her head that Tom Cruise is not God."

While the question of whether or not the star is actually God is probably the most hotly debated topic at the Celebrity Centre's in-house vitamin cafe, the fact that it's on the table—no matter how unfairly, deceptively, and facetiously pullquoted here—up in Aberdeen leads us to believe that America's love affair with one Tom Cruise is not quite over, USAToday/Gallup poll be damned.

[Photo: Seattle Times]