Posted: Jan. 13, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Steve Forbes is remembered here as the Man Who Made Delaware Matter.

He did it in 1996. After a tradition of Iowa-like caucuses that were always lost in the presidential shuffle, the state switched that year to a primary. In a modest bid for national attention but out of respect for New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation contest, Delaware decided to go second.

Whatever Tuesday suited New Hampshire, Delaware planned to follow on Saturday.

New Hampshire freaked. It acted as though Delaware was trying to force it be to annexed to Canada. New Hampshire law called for its primary to be a full week ahead of any other state's, ensuring its primacy and giving the rest of the country seven days to admire its presidential judgment, as if its handiwork deserved to last as long as it took for the Creation.

New Hampshire demanded that candidates boycott Delaware. The mood here went from perplexed and hurt -- after all, the state thought it was accommodating New Hampshire when the primary was scheduled -- to defiant.

Steve Forbes, the publishing magnate of the family business empire, was the only candidate of stature to break New Hampshire's blockade.

Forbes won the hearts of Delaware voters and the Republican primary, a victory he parlayed days later into another first-place finish in Arizona. He had made Delaware matter, although the moment did not last long. The party's national establishment roused itself for Bob Dole, a solid and familiar figure who emerged with a nomination of dubious worth against Bill Clinton, the Democratic president running for his second term.

Delaware, which was not looking for trouble with New Hampshire to begin with, changed its primary date. This year it has fallen back to Feb. 5 on Super Duper Tuesday, an afterthought again in a voting bloc of more than 20 states.

Forbes, a New Jersey neighbor who has the engaging manner of a poor-little-rich-boy, is a sunny pro-business and anti-tax conservative hawkish on national security. It is a political outlook that would fit the Republican Party here, even if it were not already kindly disposed toward him.

Forbes was back Saturday to capitalize on the good will. He is still in presidential politics, although this time around he is the national chair for Rudy Giuliani. He was here as the guest speaker at a Lincoln Day Dinner, held at the Dover Sheraton Hotel with close to 400 people attending, and he was still making friends.

"The First State -- the first state that ever voted for me," he quipped.

Presidential politics dominated the event. It was there in a sale of "ABH" bumper stickers, meaning "Anybody But Hillary," and it even turned up in something as routine as the introductions -- with Auditor Tom Wagner, a Mitt Romney man, introducing Congressman Mike Castle, a John McCain loyalist, introducing Forbes, all of it quite genial.

"Only in Delaware can Mitt Romney's state chairman introduce McCain's state chairman who introduces Rudy's national chairman," Wagner cracked.

Of course, only in the Delaware Republican Party are there so few statewide officeholders that there really was no choice. Castle and Wagner are it.

Forbes talked up Giuliani, naturally, but he also sounded like someone who could be trying for secretary of the treasury himself. He can talk about monetary policy and be understandable and not boring. He can be funny, too.

At one point Forbes riffed on the estate tax, which he preferred to call a death tax. "The American people should be allowed to leave this world unmolested by the IRS. As the Founders would say, 'No taxation without respiration.'"

As Forbes was remembered by the event-goers as the Man Who Made Delaware Matter, he also shared some of the limelight with the Man They Hope Makes Republicans Relevant. That would be Alan Levin.

The Republicans have not had the governorship since Castle won his second term in 1988, and it is the worst-kept secret in Delaware that Levin, the ex-owner of Happy Harry's drug stores, is within weeks of a candidacy that the party regards as its best chance against either Lt. Gov. John Carney or Treasurer Jack Markell, whoever lands the Democratic nomination.

Levin worked the room, while Lincoln Day Chair Cathy Murray matter-of-factly made sure that everyone noticed. "There is one unannounced candidate for governor here tonight," she said.

Castle chimed in, too. "A couple people tonight asked me what can we do to get back in the good graces of everybody in Delaware. I can tell you where to start. Win the governorship. It's everything. If you haven't met Alan Levin, we're going to put him outside one of these doors and let him shake every hand in this place before he leaves," he said.

The surprise highlight was provided by Delores Blakey, who is married to state Rep. Don Blakey, a local Kent County legislator. She sang a stirring version of "God Bless the USA," the unofficial anthem by Lee Greenwood.

People stood up and joined in as Blakey sang, "And I gladly stand up/Next to you and defend her still today." As caught up as they were, some of them may have been singing one of the choruses, "And I'm proud to be a Republican/'Cause I can't stand Hill-ar-eee," but it was hard to tell.