By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
WILLIAMSTOWN - When it comes to politics, it doesn't get much more grassroots than the scene last week in the back dining room at the Classic Country Kitchen restaurant.
About 20 members of the Grant County Republican Party Executive Committee are scattered among three long tables. Despite a freak mid-April snow shower outside the picture window, it's a good crowd.
One member eats a thick sandwich; another devours the inviting roast beef and mashed potato dinner special. Several people sip on coffee and a few even smoke, a practice still largely welcomed in public in this rural but growing tobacco-farming community.
Kevin Murphy, a well-heeled New York-raised lawyer clad in a sharp blue suit, rises to address the group. A Republican running for Congress in Northern Kentucky's Fourth District, Murphy has attended dozens of like gatherings since getting into the race more than a year ago.
"You don't know how big this district is," Murphy says, "until you have to drive it every week."
Murphy, 51, wants the seat U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a Boone County Democrat and Grant County native, is giving up this year after three terms in Washington.
He is running in a three-way GOP primary with Boone County business consultant Geoff Davis, who barely lost to Lucas in 2002, and Union chiropractor Dr. John Kelly King.
Nick Clooney, a long-time media personality from Augusta, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.
As he begins his talk to the Grant County Republicans Murphy tells why he is running. After Davis lost the '02 race to Lucas, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnelltried to recruit one of his top aides into the race.
"Geoff did a very good job and did his best," Murphy said. "But he didn't win."
Yet Murphy, known in Northern Kentucky social and political circles for his humor and gregarious personality, initially comes across as scripted and overly serious. He even glances at a yellow legal pad as if he were giving a courtroom opening statement while throwing out a laundry list of voter statistics.
Only after he begins talking about his blue-collar upbringing in a suburban New York City home - how he worked his way through Chase Law School as a truck driver and teacher - does he warm to the small crowd.
He tells an engaging story of visiting the White House early last year to meet with key Republican leaders about making the run for Congress. People smile as Murphy talks about being nervous and restless waiting for the meeting.
"But as I walked up to the West Wing, I had a great calm come over me," Murphy said, flashing a brilliant smile. "My recently deceased mother would be pretty proud of her oldest son, the first person in their family to graduate from college, much less law school."
For more than two hours Murphy talks with - not at - the crowd, taking questions about his platform, his background and his stance on issues that ranged from the war on terror to the solvency of Social Security.
Grant County GOP Chairwoman Ila Yelton was impressed.
"Once he got going," Yelton said, "he showed some pretty good moves."
Yet it will take more than "good moves," a warm smile and heart-warming tales to win what is turning into a hotly contested primary race that voters in the 24-county 4th District will decide May 18.
Murphy, generally regarded as one of Northern Kentucky's top corporate lawyers, is putting lots of time into the race. GOP leaders from throughout the vast district - which stretches from the West Virginia border nearly to Louisville and south almost to Lexington - report having him at their political functions and meetings.
Last Wednesday he was on the road almost all day, visiting newspaper editors in Lexington and Carrollton and appearing before a Cynthiana police union.
"It's a lot of work and a lot of travel, but I knew that going in," he said before the Grant County meeting.
Murphy has a full-time campaign staff and is currently advertising on his political Web site for "paid campaign positions ...both full- and part-time, flexible hours."
"Anyone 16 or older can apply to Team Murphy," for such jobs as "typing, post-card writing, walking neighborhoods, posting signs."
Murphy, who once headed the Kenton County Republican Party and ran unsuccessfully for county attorney, has hired Jay Townsend, a top political consultant known for his effective direct-mail campaigns.
He has begun a series of weekly teleconference calls with Kentucky political writers during which he has laid out his detailed proposals for issues that have included Social Security and job creation.
Murphy is the only candidate who has run television commercials. And he is supported by some of the biggest names in Northern Kentucky's business community, including Kentucky Speedway owner Jerry Carroll, lawyer Bill Robinson, Realtor Jim Huff and developers Bill Butler, John Yeager and Bill Yung.
But Murphy is also a candidate playing catch-up to Davis.
While Murphy spins Davis as a one-time loser who can't win, others see Davis' first run as an asset. The 2002 race gave him a chance to build name recognition, create a district-wide organization and establish a fund-raising base.
Murphy also badly trails Davis in fund-raising. In first-quarter federal campaign finance reports, Davis showed he raised $217,000 and has $611,863 in the bank.
After getting off to a strong fund-raising start early in the campaign, Murphy raised just about $33,000 in the first quarter, has $108,000 cash for the primary and has lent his campaign nearly $100,000 of his own money.
"While Geoff Davis had his strongest fund-raising quarter ever," said Davis campaign spokesman Justin Brasell, "Kevin Murphy had his worst fund-raising quarter ever."
Murphy claims to be undaunted by Davis' stature in the race.
"This race is about November, and I believe I'm the best candidate to beat Nick Clooney," Murphy tells the Grant County crowd.
Standing out in the restaurant are Eva and Walter Norman, a Dry Ridge couple wearing "Kevin Murphy for Congress" T-shirts that feature a smiling mug of the candidate.
"He believes in everything we believe in," Eva Norman says. "What else can I say? We think he is absolutely awesome."
Norman believes Murphy's contention that he is the best suited to whip Clooney.
"Geoff Davis couldn't beat (Lucas) last time," she says. "It's time for a change."
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