By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
AUGUSTA - Standing in the gymnasium where his children graduated from high school in the late 1970s, Democrat Nick Clooney kicked off his campaign Wednesday for Northern Kentucky's 4th Congressional District seat.
"I wanted to do this here, in the town that has been home for us for 30 years, because of how much this community means to the Clooney family," Clooney said as the tiny gym at Augusta Independent School filled with supporters and students.
Clooney officially started his campaign on a positive note - and promised to maintain a positive message in his race against Boone County Republican Geoff Davis.
Davis was more low key a day after winning the GOP primary, stopping in his Erlanger campaign office to thank supporters and staff and make fund-raising calls.
"I slept until 9:30 this morning, which is sleeping in for around here," campaign manager Justin Brasell said. "We're not taking any time off, we're getting right back at it. There are a whole lot of issues we'll be talking about over the next several weeks, and we look forward to how different we are from Nick Clooney on those issues."
To launch his campaign, Clooney went heartland instead of Hollywood at the century-old gym at Augusta school.
A small crowd of supporters swelled by the school's 310 students, from preschoolers to high school seniors, packed the gym. Blue-lettered "Clooney" signs hung from the walls. The Augusta High School band played patriotic songs from near center court while Clooney and his wife, Nina, shook hands and worked the crowd. And Clooney's niece, Mica Darley, belted out the "Star Spangled Banner" a cappella.
"This is a close-knit town, and while everybody knows who the Clooneys are, they are really just regular people who are part of the town," said Ann Bechtold, who moved here from Fort Mitchell with her husband, Gene, eight years ago.
"I remember during the (Ohio River) flood of 1997, Nick was out filling and piling sandbags just like everybody else," she said.
Clooney's son, George (Class of '79), now a famous actor, and daughter, Adelia (Class of '78), graduated from the school.
Principal Lisa McCane said Clooney's daughter was the first National Merit Scholar to graduate from Augusta.
"I think George was more of the class clown," McCane said.
Clooney did mix in plenty of politics during the rally as he prepared for his race against Davis.
Clooney said he plans to keep the race free of rancor and hopes it does not deteriorate into mud-slinging.
He does not think that anybody cares about allegations that Davis skirted campaign finance laws. The charges, made to the Federal Election Commission, became an issue Davis had to deal with during his GOP primary victory.
"We have some differences on issues, and that's what I want to talk about," Clooney said.
In four months of traveling the 24 counties of the 4th District, Clooney said, he talked to voters to learn about the issues that are important to them.
"These issues are theirs, not mine," Clooney said. "But it's what I'll be talking about."
Among the issues:
Health care. Too many Americans cannot afford health care or are living without it, he said. People are glad about the prescription drug benefit passed by Congress, but they are unhappy with the plan's details. "There is just a general unease about health care," he said.
Clooney said he would consider making Medicare available to more Americans by lowering the age eligibility from 65 to 55.
Job creation. Clooney said Congress needs to revisit the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which eased trade restrictions among Mexico, Canada and the United States. Clooney called it a disaster because too many manufacturing jobs have fled the country.
"Manufacturing jobs are what got our lower-income people into the middle class for five generations," he said.
Education. Voters like President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education act, particularly the standards it imposed on school performance. But they are unhappy it has not been fully funded.
Davis, after taking 58 percent of the vote to easily win Tuesday's primary over GOP opponents Kevin Murphy and Kelly King, spent a quiet day Wednesday, campaign manager Brasell said.
Davis has two fund-raisers planned in June with Republican members of Congress from Kentucky, Anne Northup of Louisville and Hal Rogers of Somerset.
Republican Party officials in Washington already are crafting how they will campaign against Clooney, making age and national Democratic officeholders the issue.
Bob Harmon, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that at 43 years old, Davis could serve longer in Congress than Clooney, who is 70.
"Davis has the ability to serve a long time and build up the seniority in Congress that can truly help the district," Harmon said.
Washington Democrats such as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and presidential candidate John Kerry won't be able to campaign for Clooney because they are considered liberals, Harmon said.
Clooney will have trouble "trying to balance working with Nancy Pelosi and people like that with being pro-life and pro-gun," Harmon said. "He has to run away from the leadership of his party."
Enquirer reporter Carl Weiser contributed. E-mail email@example.com
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