Sunday, October 13, 2002

Candidates struggle to find distinctions

Guest list to Bush speech becomes a campaign issue

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ERLANGER — Northern Kentucky congressional candidates Ken Lucas and Geoff Davis agree when it comes to giving President George W. Bush the authority to launch a military attack against Iraq.

But differences surface over invitations to the speech Mr. Bush gave Sept. 7 at Cincinnati's Union Terminal.

Because of Mr. Lucas' conservative voting record, his close ties to the region's business community and his allegiance to the Bush White House, the traditional mode of campaigning — where candidates slug it out over differences on issues — has been largely taken off the table.

So they're fighting over guest lists — and other non-issues.

Mr. Davis, the Republican challenger from Boone County, “weasled” his way into the event because he did not have an official invitation from Mr. Bush or the White House, according to the Lucas campaign.

Mr. Lucas, the Democratic incumbent also of Boone County, who was not on the guest list, is “desperate” to wrongly accuse Mr. Davis of not having a White House invite to the event, said Marc Wilson, a political consultant advising the Davis campaign.

“It seems like the wheels are falling off the Lucas campaign,” Mr. Wilson said.

The Lucas camp vehemently disagrees with that assessment. But there's no arguing over the road both of these candidates are taking as the race for the Fourth Congressional District — a vast 22-county area stretching along the Ohio River from West Virginia to near Louisville — speeds toward a Nov. 5 finish.

With few distinctions on most major issues — a strong national defense, tax cuts, opposition to abortion and support for gun rights — the Lucas-Davis race has turned into a snipe fest featuring silly accusations, one-upmanship and fierce posturing for the political affections of a popular president.

“Geoff Davis' problem is that Lucas has been close to the (Bush) administration,” said Campbell County Democratic Party Chairman Terry Mann. “That makes is very difficult to mount an opposition and get any momentum in a district as conservative as the Fourth District.”

Mr. Wilson scoffs at any suggestion that voters in the Fourth District — which Mr. Bush carried by 16 points in 2000 — are eager to return a Democrat to the White House.

He claims that the broad and differing ideologies espoused by Democrats and Republicans on the national scene drive votes on Election Day, and that given the choice between a Democrat who votes like a Republican and a Republican, the latter wins.

“Why would voters in the Fourth District want to keep a pseudo-Republican like Ken Lucas in Congress,” Mr. Wilson argued, “when they can have the real thing in Geoff Davis?”

Mr. Lucas may have lost some ground with Republicans when his camp floated the notion of him running against Kentucky U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning in 2004.

Gov. Paul Patton had been the presumptive Democratic nominee for that race, but he has taken his name out of consideration while he deals with a sex and abuse-of-power scandal in Frankfort.

“I think the talk of him taking on Bunning hurt his momentum, at least in Kenton County,” said Republican Kenton County Commissioner Dan Humpert. “That upset a lot of people.”

Days after the potential Senate run for Mr. Lucas was floated, Mr. Bunning — who held the Fourth District seat for 12 years before his 1998 election to the Senate — showed up in a Geoff Davis television ad. The Davis camp claims the timing was a coincidence.

Some differences

Certainly there are some differences in the platforms of the two candidates.

In an uncharacteristic alignment of political support, Mr. Lucas has broken with many Democrats — as he often does on major votes — to support Mr. Bush's call for Trade Promotion Authority, the so-called fast track system, under which the president can negotiate foreign trade pacts with approval but not input from Congress.

Because he opposes fast track, Mr. Davis picked up the endorsement of the Teamsters, a labor union that traditionally backs Democrats. Meanwhile, Mr. Lucas has been supported by area business groups and corporate executives for his vote on fast track.

The two have also differed on overhauling campaign finance laws, which Mr. Lucas has supported but Mr. Davis opposed because of his concern that the free-speech rights of advocacy groups would be curtailed.

The Lucas camp has hinted it will soon roll out information highlighting the candidates' differences in Social Security reform. Mr. Wilson has said the Republicans will be “exposing Ken Lucas' voting record over the next three to four weeks.”

Yet in the absence of a vigorous debate on the issues, the usual tit-for-tat that is a part of all campaigns has recently dominated this one.

Here are some of the incidents characterizing the contest:

The Bush factor. Both camps are eager to exploit even the thinnest of ties to the White House.

The president's image appears in both of their campaign ads. While Mr. Bush has endorsed Mr. Davis, the White House — much to the delight of the Lucas campaign — does not appear to have any plans to send Mr. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney into the district to stump and raise money for Mr. Davis.

Dirty tricks? Mr. Davis has recently accused Mr. Lucas and his operatives of sending spies to a Davis campaign fund-raiser and tearing down Davis campaign signs. Democrats denied the accusations.

“The Lucas campaign has reached an all new low,” Mr. Davis claimed in an Oct. 7 press release “First spies, now covert operations.”

Military men. Mr. Davis, a West Point graduate and former U.S. Army Ranger, is understandably proud of his record of military service and has made it a major focus on his campaign given the possibility the country could go to war with Iraq. His television ads feature Boone County GOP activist Bob Williams, a World War II hero who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day.

But the Lucas campaign has been eager to tout its endorsement by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) of United States. Mr. Lucas was a major and pilot in the Air Force.

“The endorsement is especially significant ... because both candidates have touted their military background as an asset during this time,” the Lucas campaign extolled in a press release.

Mr. Wilson said the VFW endorsement “was incumbent-driven.”

“There are some endorsements we just aren't going to get because we aren't the incumbent,” he said.

Invitationgate. Given their almost constant campaigning about ties to the White House, the Lucas camp was embarrassed that it was Mr. Davis and not Mr. Lucas who showed up at Mr. Bush's Cincinnati speech on Iraq, where he was interviewed by a Cincinnati television station.

After media reports said the White House invited Mr. Davis to the speech, the Lucas campaign put out a statement — “Geoff Davis weasels way into Bush Event in Cincinnati” — refuting the reports and claiming it was the Hamilton County Republican Party that made the invite, not the White House.

“The Davis' campaign's attempt to portray Mr. Davis as an invited guest of the White House underscores his desperation in his campaign,” said Ben Davis, Mr. Lucas' campaign manager.

“Talk about desperate,” Mr. Wilson responded.


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