Posted: Oct. 6, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Delaware got itself a vice president, political riches at the outer reaches of a small state's imagination. Next it could have the most pivotal race in the country for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010.

Delaware at the center of the political universe! It would make the electorate think it has been stuffed into a bass drum and rolled down the steps, the campaign thunder would be so shatteringly loud.

Mike Castle took care of the Republican half the equation for the Senate election. He put 40 years of elected office on the line -- as a congressman in his ninth term and a past governor, lieutenant governor and state legislator -- to say he will run.

"We came to closure a little over a week ago that this is something we wanted to do," he said Tuesday at a press conference near the Wilmington train station, as he stood with his wife Jane.

"Once we reached closure, I realized I wanted to do it all along. I am here today to announce that I will be a candidate for the U.S. Senate."

Beau Biden is the elusive Democratic half of the equation. Back in Delaware for barely a week after a year in Iraq with the National Guard, he is nowhere ready to commit to trying to parlay a single term as attorney general and his political pedigree into a Senate seat.

"There will be time for me to make a decision," Biden said in a brief telephone interview.

There is no indication when Biden will decide. Nor is there an indication he will decide anything other than to run for the seat his father left for the vice presidency, taking care to see it entrusted within the Biden sphere to Ted Kaufman, his ex-aide and constant confidant.

This will be a desperate race. Neither side dares lose.

"It's got the possibility of being 'the' race. It's got to be one of the top two or three in the country. I don't see how Biden can't run, because the chances of the Republicans flipping the seat are now so high," said Joe Pika, a political scientist at the University of Delaware.

For the Republicans nationally, Castle represents probably their best chance to pick up a seat and crack a filibuster-proof Senate of 60 Democratic votes.

For the Republicans at home, Castle stands between them and the political abyss. He is their last major statewide figure and the essential element if they are to recruit a credible statewide ticket.

"He kept us on pins and needles, but it was worth the wait. It's just going to generate so much excitement for the Republicans," said Laird Stabler, the Republican national committeeman.

For the Democrats, not only is their drive to keep 60 Senate seats at stake, but so is the prestige of the vice president in his home state. It would not do to lose the seat Joe Biden first won in 1972.

"Delaware Democrats have held this Senate seat for 37 years, and we have no intentions of giving it up now," said John Daniello, the Democratic state chair.

There are estimates that the candidates could spend $10 million or $15 million each -- double or triple any prior Senate race -- for the right to serve for four years, the remainder of a six-year term Joe Biden won while on the 2008 ballot for both the presidential ticket and the Senate.

That spending could pale beside an onslaught from outside that the state's political leadership from both sides is braced for. There is deep concern the voters could be subjected to a barrage that does lasting harm to the code of political civility here that Castle and the Bidens have observed.

No matter how clamorous the din, however, no matter how much the two sides wrangle over the economy or health care or whatever, a contest between Mike Castle and Beau Biden is likely to come down to each voter's gut on one divide alone.

Age versus entitlement.

Is Castle at 70 too old? Is Biden nothing but a name?

Castle is the first to test it. He put his candidacy in motion, he said, on Sunday, Sept. 27, meeting the self-imposed deadline he announced for himself Labor Day weekend to make a decision by the end of the month.

His closest associates learned of his decision in the next day or so, but all was mum until Tuesday morning, when he scheduled a press conference for noon and made a round of telephone calls to key Republicans.

Castle said he waited until Biden was back from Iraq. The National Guard's homecoming was last Wednesday. Castle said he expected Biden to be his opponent and realized what he was taking on.

"I have a lot of respect for Joe Biden and more importantly, friendship," Castle said. "That is a very political family. They're very accomplished in the art of politics. When you deal with any Biden, you deal with all the Bidens."

The Republicans have everything riding on Castle. They have been here before.

They watched Cale Boggs, a beloved senator and ex-governor, run one time too many and lose one of Delaware's Senate seats in a spectacular upset in 1972 to the 29-year-old Joe Biden. It is less likely Biden, a New Castle County councilman at the time, could have beaten another Republican like Pete du Pont, who was the congressman.

They watched Bill Roth, a five-term senator, run one time too many and turn the other Senate seat over in 2000 to Tom Carper, then the Democratic governor. If Roth had retired, Castle was regarded as the heir to the seat.

Those elections were watersheds, the losses so momentous that they left the Republicans wounded to this day.

This time is different. Castle is not blocking out another Republican. He is all the party has, and his presence on the ticket can mask how thin the bench is and give the Republicans an additional election cycle for rebuilding.

The twist this time is, the party is better off if Castle runs and loses than if he did not run at all.