Sunday, October 3, 2004

4th District race draws nation's eye


Famous name, coveted seat

By Patrick Crowley
Enquirer staff writer

The combination of Hollywood glitz and a legendary local name put Northern Kentucky's 4th Congressional District race in the national spotlight.

CONTRIBUTIONS
Money raised as of June 30
Clooney
Raised: $827,882
Spent: $222,706
Cash on hand: $605,174
Davis
Raised: $1,326,372
Spent: $605,484
Cash on hand: $721,614
Source: Federal Election Commission
A titanic political battle is keeping it there.

Democrat Nick Clooney's 40-year media career and his famous family - son George, an actor, and late sister Rosemary, a famous singer - have the likes of People Magazine and the tabloid television show Inside Edition paying attention to Northern Kentucky politics.

But it is Republican Geoff Davis' quest to reclaim from the Democrats what was long a GOP seat in Congress that has the more traditional national political press watching the race closely.

With less than a month before Election Day, focus on the battle for the seat Rep. Ken Lucas is leaving after three terms is expected to intensify.

"If the name of one of the candidates was not Clooney, this race would not be getting the attention it is getting," said Amy Walter, who follows House races for the Cook Political Report, a Washington-based bulletin.

"Would he be mentioned on CNN and other places? Probably not," Walter said, adding that Clooney's name recognition has been an advantage for the Democrats.

"The Democrats knew this was going to be a tough race, so they decided to go out with a real bang, put Clooney up and see what happens," she said.

Republicans agree that Clooney's name does generate publicity, but not enough to make a real difference in the race.

"That's a fairly small part of it," said Bo Harmon, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is aggressively assisting the Davis campaign with money and resources.

The pure politics of the race is the real driver of attention on it, Harmon said.

Kentucky's 24-county 4th District, which stretches along the Ohio River from West Virginia to near Louisville and includes all of Northern Kentucky, "is the most Republican-heavy district with an open seat that is now held by a Democrat," Harmon said.

Until Lucas won the seat in 1998, Republicans represented the 4th District for more than 30 years.

President Bush carried the 4th District with more than 60 percent of the vote when the Republican beat Democrat Al Gore four years ago. A Louisville Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll of likely voters - conducted two weeks ago - gave Bush a 12-point lead over Democrat John Kerry, who is not campaigning in Kentucky.

Having Bush and Sen. Jim Bunning, a Campbell County Republican also up for re-election, on the top of the ticket could prove to be a huge advantage.

"This is one of the top pickup opportunities for Republicans anywhere in the country," Harmon said.

Walter agreed that the district's demographics, voting patterns and conservative leanings "are working against" Clooney.

But Clooney gets traction from his deep roots in the 4th District. He was raised up-river in Maysville and still lives in nearby Augusta. Davis was born in Canada, raised in Pittsburgh and has lived in the district for about a decade.

"Nick is a lifelong Kentuckian who was born here, raised his family here and has lived for the last 29 years in Augusta," former Kentucky Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford said in a recent e-mail to Clooney supporters. "He understands our Kentucky values because he knows and understands the local people."

Clooney has also proven to be an aggressive and effective campaigner. He works a room like a seasoned pol and routinely draws big crowds at his campaign events.

But debating Davis could prove to be more difficult for Clooney.

At a recent Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce debate - which also featured Independent candidate Michael Slider of Oldham County - many people in the audience felt Davis bested Clooney, who has the reputation of being a natural orator from his years as a TV newsman.

But Clooney seemed uncomfortable and even read notes for his responses, an unusual and generally ineffective debate tactic.

The candidates are set to debate Oct. 11 on KET statewide television and Oct. 13 at Northern Kentucky University in an event sponsored by Legacy, a young professional group.

Davis, by contrast, had the reputation of being too stiff on the campaign trail. During the 2002 race that he lost to Lucas by 3 points, Davis was often dour on the stump.

Sensing that he had to improve his image while going up against a media veteran like Clooney, Davis is more polished this go-round. He shaved his mustache, smiles more often and seems more in command of the issues, though he has a tendency to talk in platitudes rather than specifics.

Davis' biggest attributes are his staunch conservative stances, said Marc Wilson of Florence, a GOP lobbyist close to the Davis campaign.

"The differences in this race are really very simple," Wilson said. "Geoff Davis has a grasp of the issues that are important to the people of the 4th District. Nick Clooney doesn't. ... That's what this race is going to come down to - substance, not style."

E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com




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