By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FALMOUTH - Do something for three years and you're bound to get good or at least better at it.
After spending that much time running for Congress, Geoff Davis is a better campaigner.
The political skills the Boone County Republican has developed while stumping across Kentucky's 24-county Fourth Congressional District were on display during a campaign swing he made through Pendleton County last week.
On a warm afternoon, Davis bounded into Bob Yelton's tidy State Farm Insurance office on U.S. 27 where about 20 supporters gathered to hear from him.
With a smile that wasn't always prevalent during past visits with voters, Davis immediately began grabbing hands, grasping shoulders and working the room like the seasoned pol he is becoming.
Wearing a crisp blue suit he would later jokingly refer to as a "monkey suit," Davis briefly worked the room before standing in front of the friendly crowd. He then began selling not just his ideas and platform, but himself.
"I really appreciate you being here," he said. "Thanks for your hospitality. It's always good to be back in Pendleton County."
"Stiff" was how some of Davis' most ardent supporters used to describe him. Democrats were less kind and more graphic.
But a new candidate has emerged.
Florence GOP consultant and lobbyist Marc Wilson has been advising Davis since the summer of 2001, when Davis announced his plans to run for the Congressional seat held by two-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas of Boone County.
Lucas beat Davis by just three percentage points in a 2002 race so bitter Lucas refused to take a congratulatory phone call from Davis on election night. Lucas is not seeking re-election this year.
In his concession speech that night, Davis basically kicked off his 2004 campaign. He hasn't stopped politicking or raising money since. In that time he has grown and matured as a candidate, supporters like Wilson said.
"I met Geoff Davis three years ago," Wilson said. "He definitely looks a lot more congressional today than three years ago."
Gone are the drawn out, overly-technical stories about his service as a U.S. Army Ranger in the Middle East during the 1980s. Davis, a proud West Point grad, still talks about his military service. But in recalling those days Davis is more conversational, and uses the topic to segue into his support of President Bush's war in Iraq.
Instead of sneering when he talks about the opposition, he is more positive and even funny, telling supporters the race is being dubbed nationally as "Hollywood vs. The Heartland," a reference to Democratic candidate Nick Clooney of Augusta.
Clooney, a local media personality, is the father of actor George Clooney, an outspoken critic of President Bush.
Davis spends more time dwelling on his own attributes while hitting the buzzwords of the Republican Party platform.
"I'm committed to make a difference and work on the issues of jobs and the economy. Get the government out of our hair ... and work to lower taxes and make sure our national defense is strong," he said.
He tries to be more personal in telling a story about working on a relief team that helped Falmouth recover from the deadly 1997 Licking River flood. But he sounded a little too much like Bill Clinton, a political pariah in these parts, in recalling how he sat with a woman who lost everything "literally feeling her pain."
To show his modest roots, Davis tells of growing up "a latchkey kid" in a single-parent household "on the wrong side of the tracks."
Still a conservative
The more strident approach of earlier days is present but not pervasive.
Davis is not abandoning his conservative credentials, though he does appear to be toning down his rhetoric, possibly to attract some of the more moderate voters that Clooney is expected to entice.
He draws a stark difference between the two parties in the so-called cultural wars expected to play a huge role in this year's presidential and congressional elections.
"There's an assault on the family right now," Davis said. "Gay marriage is the Democrat agenda. We need to send someone (to Washington) who is going to stand for the values that we represent."
And he is no longer uncomfortable telling an off-the-record and only slightly off-color joke while on the stump, something the Davis of three or even two years ago would never have done.
"He's a good candidate," said Pendleton County farmer Bill Roseberry, who on past visits introduced Davis around the community. "His military background is impressive, especially with what we're going through now. And he comes across like one of us, just a regular guy, but one who wants to make a difference."
In Pendleton County, a mostly rural area 35 miles south of Newport, Democrats outnumber Republicans 6,390 to 2,469. But in the 2002 race, Davis lost to Lucas by just 119 votes. And Bush beat Gore nearly 2-to-1 in the 2000 presidential election.
GOP candidates can prevail here because the voters, regardless of party affiliation, are conservative, said Pendleton County Republican Roger Sullivan.
"People here know who Nick Clooney is, and a lot of them probably like him," said Sullivan, a grocery store meat cutter who is running for a Kentucky statehouse seat this fall. "But that doesn't mean people are going to vote for him. People here want conservatives. Geoff Davis will carry this county. He'll win."
A better campaign
Davis' campaign has also displayed better overall political skills. Reactionary in his first campaign, Davis can now be more proactive.
Rumors circulated earlier this year that Davis - a self-employed business consultant from Boone County - was being paid a salary by a group of unidentified Northern Kentucky businessmen who wanted him in Congress.
To quell the gossip, Davis released 10 years of tax returns to the media.
When Kevin Murphy, the Erlanger lawyer nipping at Davis' heels in the GOP primary, rolled out supporters in the business community, Davis called a press conference to tout his backing from 150 of the region's business executives and owners.
Davis was slightly embarrassed, though, when one of his supposed backers - Maker's Mark CEO Bill Samuels - revealed he is backing Clooney because of a longtime friendship.
And while Davis has raised the most money of any candidate in the race, even his own polling shows him trailing Clooney by 16 points.
Davis still may lack the personal charisma of Clooney or Murphy.
"Ultimately this election in the end is going to be about substance versus style," he said.
"I was told I had a great face for radio. Well, I'll concede the style, but I'll win on substance."
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