Sunday, January 18, 2004

Clooney's name recognition opens doors for campaign



By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

WILLIAMSTOWN - As a Wal-Mart greeter, Clyde Slayback is accustomed to welcoming people when they come through the door.

He's just not used to doing it while he's off duty, sitting in a barber's chair, getting a haircut.

But when Nick Clooney - former television and radio host, dad of George and congressional candidate - burst into Tony's Barber Shop, Slayback smiled and pulled his hand from underneath the silky barber's drape that covered everything but his head.

"I know who you are," Slayback told Clooney as they shook hands.

That's just the kind of response from voters Democratic Party leaders envisioned when they recruited Clooney into Kentucky's Fourth Congressional District race.

"Everybody knows who Nick Clooney is," Grant County resident Jeff Dunaway, 43, hollered from the next chair as the candidate and his small entourage - wife Nina Clooney, a campaign worker, a reporter and a photographer - crowded into the tidy, two-chair shop Tony Poole runs on Main Street.

"I've seen him on TV and read his column," Dunaway said. "And if they don't know him, they know his son or his sister."

With his famous family and his years in the media, Clooney brings name recognition to the campaign that most politicians have to buy through phone calls, mailers, bumper stickers and road signs. It doesn't hurt that people consider him a local boy gone bigtime, either.

Clooney's son George is a famous actor who has drawn political heat for his often vitriolic criticism of George Bush. Nick Clooney's late sister Rosemary was a world famous singer and actress. He has spent the past 40 years hosting radio and TV programs. He wrote a newspaper column for 15 years, penned a book about classic films and appeared at countless community events across Kentucky.

Clooney is running for the Fourth District seat held by U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a Boone County Democrat who is not seeking a fourth term. Two Republicans are running in the May 18 GOP primary: Geoff Davis, a Boone County business consultant who Lucas beat by 3 percentage points two years ago, and Erlanger lawyer Kevin Murphy, the former head of the Kenton County GOP.

The district covers 24 counties and includes all of Northern Kentucky.

On the campaign trail last week, Clooney spent about 10 minutes at the barbershop. The conversation was light. No heavy talk of issues. He bid a quick goodbye before he and Nina headed up Main Street for visits to the Grant County Chamber of Commerce and the Williamstown City Building.

"Wait for me, Nick," Nina Clooney said as she felt the chilly late-morning temperature. "Let me put on my ear muffs."

Clooney has spent at least one day a week since early November dropping in at small places in small towns like Williamstown to visit key Democrats, elected officials and what he calls "regular folks."

"This is the part I love," Clooney said after taking a few moments talking to an elderly man. "Just meeting people. It's what I've done all my life."

But eventually voters are going to separate the politician from the personality. They'll want to know where Clooney stands on the issues that matter to them.

"Celebrity gets you in the door," said Xavier University political science professor Gene Beaupre. "But when you're building a voter base, you have to be responsive to the issues people care about. That's how they'll judge you, on the issues that matter to them, not how somebody paints you, or even how you paint yourself, in a 30-second commercial."

Hints of that prediction poked through when Clooney visited the Grant County Courthouse. He was pressed about what he can do for the community if elected.

But his celebrity status - or at least, his son's - still took center stage among people waiting for Clooney's arrival.

A rumor had spread that George Clooney was going to be with his parents, and several courthouse workers - mainly women - were anxious about seeing the Hollywood hunk.

"I bet you get that everywhere, people want to know where George is," Grant County Judge-executive Darrell Link said to the Clooneys.

But Link took advantage of the time he had with the man who could be the region's next congressman. He lets Clooney know that if he's elected, he'll need to respond to the people. Grant County, where the population has grown by 42 percent since 1990 to just over 23,000, needs money to install sewer lines, Link told the candidate.

Clooney dutifully jotted down Link's concerns in a notebook.

"Don't forget us now when you get to Washington," joked Link, a Democrat.

Grant County resident Vanessa Rose, 37, stopped by Link's office to meet Clooney.

"He has a great name," said Rose. "But that will only take him so far. Sooner or later people are going to want to hear what he wants to do in Congress."

Republicans say any star power Clooney has will fade once voters begin focusing on issues.

"Ultimately, people will not vote for you because you wrote a column in the newspaper or hosted a show on TV," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the Washington-based National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect GOP candidates to the U.S. House.

"Voters want to know how somebody is going to vote in Congress. And clearly Clooney is a little too liberal for the Fourth District," Forti said.

Clooney touched some conservative nerves with comments he has made about handgun control, opposition to the war in Iraq and support of abortion when the mother's life is in danger.

He will have trouble selling those stances in a district known for its conservative ideals and tendencies to vote Republican. In the 2000 presidential race, Republican George Bush carried the district with 61 percent of the vote. In November's gubernatorial election, Republican Ernie Fletcher did nearly as well with 59 percent.

But Bob Doyle, Clooney's Washington-based political consultant and fund-raiser, said the candidate has many positions and beliefs that will appeal to voters.

"Nick is putting a great emphasis on health care, education, a stronger military, more attention to military veterans, a fiscally solvent Social Security program," Doyle said.

The race has drawn attention in Washington, where at least one publication - the daily political tip sheet Hotline - handicaps the race in favor of the Republicans.

"If the Republicans cannibalize their odds in a divisive primary or run a weak candidate, Clooney has a fair shot," Hotline reported last week. "Upward ho, Dems. This is the GOP's to lose."

E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com




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