Posted: Oct. 13, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Three weeks before the election, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner spent her day in Kent County. Probably it was smart politics.

Minner is a first-term Democrat, and Kent County has not been kind to statewide Democrats recently, no matter how durable they otherwise are. Kent County is the one Minner calls home -- normally a plus for a politician -- but she wisely does not seem to be taking her status as favorite daughter for granted.

Instead, Minner had appearances Tuesday in Dover and Felton to emphasize her local ties, campaigning as much against a voter trend as against William Swain Lee, the ex-judge who is the Republicans' candidate for governor, and a minor-party candidate.

If Minner carries Kent County, she will outperform the last efforts by U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a pair of stellar Democratic candidates.

Biden lost Kent in 2002, the only time he failed to carry all three counties since Sussex County went against him when he first ran in 1972. Carper lost both lower counties in 2000, relying on population-rich New Castle County alone in ousting Republican William V. Roth Jr.

Biden and Carper are from New Castle County, though. Minner lives on the Kent County side of Milford, her base for 30 years of public office from the legislature to two terms as lieutenant governor to governor.

Recent polls, whether conducted by Democratic, Republican or academic pollsters, all put Minner ahead of Lee by varying margins. None of those publicly-released surveys provided a breakdown by county, and it would not be surprising if she had work to do in Kent County.

Minner bid for the home vote by implication when she attended a swearing-in ceremony in Dover for James T. Vaughn Jr., a fellow Kent County Democrat whom she appointed as the Superior Court president judge.

Vaughn was the third Kent Countian she nominated for a high judicial post this year, along with two for the Supreme Court -- Chief Justice Myron T. Steele, a Democrat, and Henry duPont Ridgely, a Republican.

Later, Minner's pitch was as direct as it could be when she spoke at the Belle Everett Dinner, a bedrock for Kent County Democrats. The event this year drew about 150 of them to the Felton Fire Hall.

"This will be my last campaign. This will be my 11th campaign. Kent County has been good to me," Minner said.

"My own good 33rd District when I ran for the House, the 18th when I ran for the Senate, lieutenant governor and governor, I will forever be deeply indebted. I'm back tonight to say, we need you again."

On paper Kent County looks winnable for Minner. In registration, as in geography, it falls in the middle between New Castle County to the north and Sussex County to the south -- with New Castle County most favorable for Democrats and Sussex County the least.

As of Oct. 1, New Castle County's 354,741 voters were 45 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican and 24 percent others. Kent County's 81,657 voters were 41 percent Democratic, 34 percent Republican and 25 percent others. Sussex County's 105,926 voters were 40 percent Democratic, 39 percent Republican and 21 percent others.

The statewide totals for 542,324 registered voters are 44 percent Democratic, 34 percent Republican and 23 percent others.

Still, a trend is a trend, and Kent County -- once as reliable a Democratic vote as Wilmington -- is trending the other way. Richard H. Bayard, the Democratic state chairman, was inclined to see it philosophically. Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, put a personal twist on it.

"Delaware's changed. The more suburban an area, the more Democratic an area it is, and Kent County is not there yet. Right now it's the least developed, most conservative county," Bayard said.

"Maybe Minner is like Al Gore -- the people who knew him best didn't want him. He lost Tennessee," Rakestraw said. "Minner can't appoint everybody in Kent County as a judge -- if she could, her numbers ought to go up -- but she's doing the best she can."

As Biden and Carper showed, a Democrat does not need much beyond a strong showing in New Castle County to win. Northern Delaware is neutral turf for both Minner and Lee, who is from Sussex County.

In three statewide campaigns, Minner has never lost a county. She is not ready to concede Kent County now, although she clearly was focusing on a bigger political map when asked whether she expected to carry her home base.

"Who knows? I think yes. I think we'll do all right statewide," Minner said.