AUGUSTA, Ky. – Nick Clooney (search) launched himself into a congressional campaign Wednesday to the cheers of a hometown crowd in the gym where his famous actor son once played basketball.
Clooney, a Democrat, seeks to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas (search), who recruited him to the race. Clooney was unopposed in the 4th District primary election Tuesday. His Republican opponent, Geoff Davis (search), handily won a three-way primary.
The chance for each party to pick off an open seat figures to make the northern Kentucky district a battleground in November.
Clooney spoke from midcourt of the tiny gym at Augusta Independent School, where his children, George and Ada, graduated.
Augusta, a picture-postcard town on the Ohio River, is renowned for its historic preservation, antiques shops and arts community. The Clooneys moved here 30 years ago, and for years the elder Clooney made the 45-mile commute to Cincinnati, where he was a television newscaster.
"I'm very proud to tell people that I'm from Augusta, Kentucky," Clooney told a cheering crowd that filled one side of the bleachers. "Augusta is my home and will always be my home."
The school band played. Fourth graders sang a campaign ditty written by Mica Darley, a singer-songwriter and part-time teacher who also is Clooney's niece. The crowd joined in a serenade: "And old Kentucky would be so lucky, to have Nick Clooney, to see us through."
Clooney touched on broad themes he plans to reiterate throughout the campaign: health care costs, job creation, more federal funding for education and supporting a federal buyout of tobacco production quotas.
In an interview, Clooney said he would support expanding Medicare (search) to cover people 55 and older who have no private health insurance. He said they would be charged rates to keep the system solvent, but their out-of-pocket expenses would still be considerably lower.
Clooney told the crowd that "power and arrogance" had crept into "some parts of our government." Later, Clooney said he detected such a mindset in the run-up to the Iraq war.
"It was nobody much listening to anybody toward the end, particularly those who had a different point of view," he said. "It was strictly a drive toward war."
Clooney said U.S. troops needed to stay in Iraq until "we fix it" but that security responsibilities should be handed over to Iraqis as soon as possible. He said U.S. troops could remain to keep the country stable, but clearing them of security work would "get the targets off their backs."
Davis, the Republican, says the U.S. invasion was justified. He has a military background — West Point graduate, former Army helicopter pilot and trained as a ranger.
He once directed Army aviation operations for a peacekeeping mission in the Middle East (search). "We need someone in Congress who understands the consequences that are paid for our foreign policy decisions," he told a postelection crowd Tuesday night.
Davis won a three-way primary with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Davis also has stressed jobs and health care as issues but said he presents a "clear philosophical contrast" to Clooney.
"Ultimately, this race is about who has the experience and the qualifications necessary to provide hands-on leadership for the long term," he said.
Michael Baranowski, a Northern Kentucky University political science professor, said Wednesday the race appeared to be a toss up.
Baranowski predicted both sides would pour money into the race because competitive races, especially for open seats, are few.
He also predicted that Republicans would have a hard time trying to get one possible attack to stick — tagging Clooney as sympathetic to Hollywood liberals because of his son's views. Baranowski said the "celebrity factor" looms as an advantage for Clooney.
"In this area, Nick Clooney is not only the father of a celebrity, he's a celebrity himself," Baranowski said.