Sunday, December 21, 2003

Clooney courts voters in bid for Ky. congressional seat

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

BEDFORD, Ky. - Political newcomer Nick Clooney needed no introduction as he shook hands with people hunched over steaming breakfast plates at the Farmhouse restaurant.

His face, once a fixture as a Cincinnati television news anchor, was familiar to the regulars chewing over issues between bites of eggs and sausage.

"I knew him since I walked in the door, and I had never met him before," said Richard Ginn, a real estate appraiser and tobacco farmer.

The 69-year-old Democrat and father of actor George Clooney looked at ease as he cultivated support in his bid for the seat held by Kentucky's lone Democratic congressman, Ken Lucas, who is retiring.

Impeccably dressed in suit and tie, the silver-haired Clooney greeted people with his smooth, baritone voice while making the rounds at the small cafe. His wife, Nina, also chatted up customers.

"I've been doing this all my life," Clooney said later. "You start off talking to make them feel a little more comfortable. And then you shut up. And then they start really telling you stuff."

Clooney heard about health care, the decline of tobacco and an Ohio River bridge up the road that residents want replaced.

Clooney also flashed a quick wit. He teased one woman for bringing a banana to slice into her cereal. Squatting down to eye level with a man eating breakfast, Clooney said he did so just to prove he still could.

"You have to take what you do seriously, but you can't take yourself seriously," he said.

Two Republicans are running for the seat - Geoff Davis, a Boone County business consultant who lost to Lucas in 2002, and Kevin Murphy, an Erlanger attorney.

Lucas is honoring a term limit pledge by retiring. He recruited Clooney, a native of Maysville who now lives in Augusta and who bears one of the region's best-known names.

Actor George Clooney is his son. The late singer-actress Rosemary Clooney was his sister. Nick Clooney also is a former newspaper columnist and was host on the cable network American Movie Classics.

Clooney, so far the only Democrat in the race, is bracing for a tough fight in a district that traditionally has been a Republican stronghold.

Lucas was the first Democrat in three decades to represent the conservative district that snakes along the Ohio River from the West Virginia line nearly to Louisville and takes in much of the northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati.

Michael Baranowski, a Northern Kentucky University political science professor, considers Davis the front-runner in next year's election.

Baranowski said Davis lost a close election to Lucas because he had trouble differentiating himself from the incumbent, a conservative who often voted with Republicans. Davis should have an easier time separating himself from Clooney, Baranowski said.

Also, President Bush is popular in the district, and Republicans are expected to pour money into the race in hopes of picking up a seat.

Clooney's inexperience also could play a role, Baranowski said.

"Like all first-time candidates in a race that's going to be high profile, he's going to make some mistakes," Baranowski said. "And he doesn't have much margin for error."

Clooney calls himself a "commonsense Democrat" stressing health care, jobs, veterans issues and a proposed buyout of tobacco quotas.

He opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger. He supports a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, but thinks the measure that passed Congress will be a boon to drug and insurance companies but a disappointment to seniors.

He said the Bush tax cuts created a huge deficit and that he would target tax cuts to those in need. "Why are we continuing to empower those who don't need our help, and not empower, more, those who do?" Clooney said.

Clooney said he supported the military strike against Afghanistan to root out terrorists but was an early critic of the war in Iraq.

"I didn't think we had reason enough to send 300,000 kids over there in harm's way without enough evidence of the weapons of mass destruction being there," Clooney said.

Having already committed U.S. troops, however, he said the Bush administration must finish the job and establish democracy in Iraq.

For 15 years, Clooney's opinions were displayed in his columns, published three times weekly in The Cincinnati Post.

He expects Republicans to pore over his columns looking for opinions to exploit. Clooney said his columns criticized Republicans and Democrats alike.

"If I posed questions in my column and raised controversial positions, that was my job," he said. "I was to engender conversation over the supper table."

Davis said the GOP would "thoroughly review all of his positions."

"The one rule in politics is you're always accountable for what you say," Davis said.

Clooney said his son's role in the campaign would likely consist of limited public appearances, but said George would "win by acclamation" if his name were on the ballot.

In a statement, George Clooney said of his father: "There isn't a person who has dedicated more of his life and career to the citizens of Kentucky, and I couldn't be more proud of him."

However, if George Clooney assumes a role in the campaign, his own political views could become an issue, Murphy said.

"If Mr. Clooney decides to make his son an issue in the campaign, he will have to live with the positions and the statements of his son, who has succumbed to the Hollywood liberalism that is very far removed from Midwest values," Murphy said.

Davis, who has campaigned almost nonstop since losing to Lucas, played down Clooney's connections to the entertainment world.

"I think the celebrity candidacies can be overplayed," he said.

Murphy and Davis said the GOP has a political star interested in the race.

"There is another George who is a whole lot more popular in the 4th District of Kentucky, and that's George W. Bush," Davis said.

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