Posted: Oct. 27, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republicans brought in New York Gov. George E. Pataki on Wednesday like some sort of lucky charm to show there is such a thing as a Republican challenger who can knock out a sitting Democratic governor.

Pataki vaulted into political lore in 1994, the year of a great national Republican tide, when he took down Mario M. Cuomo, a three-term Democratic governor regarded as presidential material, in a Democratic state.

Pataki came to Wilmington to talk up William Swain Lee, the Republican ex-judge who is challenging Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

Minner is no Cuomo -- her ambitions are for a second term and then retirement in Milford -- but political history and the state's Democratic-leaning registration are on her side. No sitting Delaware governor has lost since 1976, and it took Pierre S. du Pont, a Republican who turned out to have presidential aspirations of his own, to do it.

Furthermore, the Delaware Republicans managed to send mixed messages about this notion of taking out an incumbent governor. Sure, they brought in Pataki, but his appearance was hosted by U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, who was one of those governors who served two terms before he was elected to the Congress in 1992.

Pataki headlined a $100-a-ticket lunch attended by more than 300 people at the Hotel du Pont. Castle got the money. Lee got the publicity.

As a Wall Street lawyer before going into politics, Pataki made much of the legal background he shares with Lee and praised him for his cool-headedness in keeping Thomas J. Capano's murder trial from careening out of control.

"Delaware has an enormously respected judiciary," Pataki said. "Of all those great judges, Bill Lee stood out. . . . Now he's choosing to try to help all the people of Delaware."

The election on Tuesday is six days away. Lee has proved himself to be a resilient campaigner, chasing the governorship ever since he stunned the Republican establishment by storming out of nowhere to come within 44 votes of denying the 2000 nomination to the endorsed candidate.

Lee has pounded his case against Minner, calling her a governor with no vision, maneuvering to keep her painted into a corner on the hostage-taking and rape of a prison counselor, and criticizing her record on student performance and chronic polluters.

The result is that Minner has had to be more defensive than expected, instead of running as the governor who did something about cancer by signing a smoking ban into law, steered the state through an economic downturn with as little pain as possible, committed more money to classrooms and launched "Livable Delaware" to deal with growth.

Castle called the gubernatorial race "real tight right now," but he also understood the odds against beating an incumbent.

"It's never easy," Castle said. "I'm not even suggesting it's going to happen, but it is in the realm of possibility."