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Star son handicaps papa

Vanceburg, Kentucky, Oct. 18: Were it not for his dark family secret, Nick Clooney ' the Democratic contender for one of Kentucky's last Democratic-held seats in Congress ' would be a near-perfect candidate.

It takes a rare breed of Democrat to survive in the American South. In that deeply conservative region, politicians must bow to a creed of God, guns (good) and gays (bad).

Clooney is an anti-abortion, pro-gun army veteran, happily married to his first and only wife. A snowy-haired man of 70, he is a splendid old ham on the campaign trail, spinning yarns about his grandpa and apologising for too much 'speechifying'.

Showing up the loneliness of today's Southern Democrat, Clooney does not attack President George W Bush on the stump, and does not even breathe the name John Kerry.

Yet, to many conservative voters, Clooney cannot overcome a terrible family shame: his son is George Clooney, the Hollywood star.

During their steady march to power in the South, Republicans have long used social and religious wedge issues to prise White conservatives from their historic loyalty to the Democrats. In this latest election, Republicans have repeatedly used Hollywood as a shorthand for liberal extremism, helped by shrill outbreaks of Bush-bashing and anti-war activism of such entertainers as Barbra Streisand, Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore.

Nick Clooney's Republican opponents have leapt on his family ties, calling the 4th district race a contest of 'Hollywood versus the heartland'.

They accused Clooney of being bankrolled by 'Hollywood liberals', after his son attended private fund-raising events for his father in California, New York, Washington DC and Kentucky.

George Clooney finally wrote an open letter to a local newspaper, declaring that he and his father disagreed on many issues and asking voters to judge his father on his own merits.

Today, with just weeks until the election, the 4th district race is proving desperately close; one of only a handful of Congressional cliff-hangers in the whole country.

George Clooney, star of the television series ER and films such as Intolerable Cruelty and Brother, Where Art Thou' has fans in Kentucky, not least in his tiny home town of Augusta. But he has not campaigned in public for his father. He is not even named or pictured in his father's biographical pamphlets.

Across the district, voters agreed the Clooney campaign had to play down its star power. 'They shouldn't use him to help his dad,' said Debbie Fultz, a Democrat from Campbell County. 'George Clooney is more Hollywood than Kentucky now.' Wanda Gallenstein expressed sympathy for the elder Clooney. 'It's a shame. Nick Clooney would have had a lot better chance without his son.'

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