Posted: Nov. 30, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

At the Delaware State Fair in 1980, there was a fellow named Thomas R. Carper, an up-and-coming Democrat, who was shaking hands as he campaigned for re-election as state treasurer, the post he won in 1976 as an energetic 29-year-old.

Carper had heard about a lawyer, an ex-legislator eight years older than he was, whom the Republicans had tapped to run for lieutenant governor with Gov. Pierre S. du Pont, a star politician cruising to re-election, but Carper did not know him -- someone named Michael N. Castle.

Carper and Castle met at the fairgrounds in Harrington that July day. Since both of them were there for the same reason, they found themselves campaigning together.

"He's a Republican, and I'm a Democrat, and we're walking around together. I really liked him," Carper said. "He's been my friend ever since."

It is, of course, typical Delaware politics, where it is still more important to know who people are than what they are, no matter how Republican red or Democratic blue the rest of the country is.

Carper told that story Monday when he and Castle spoke to about 75 Young Democrats and Young Republicans at the Charter School in Wilmington, a group that included Carper's 16-year-old son Christopher and 14-year-old son Ben, both students in the Young Democrats' club.

It is four offices later (treasurer, U.S. representative, governor and U.S. senator) for Carper and three offices later (lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. representative) for Castle. Their place in Delaware politics has gone from untested to overarching, Carper with his record streak of 11 statewide victories and Castle with his re-election numbers that hover around 70 percent.

Together they spoke about the crying need in the Congress for coalition-building and cordiality between the two parties, and they held themselves out as examples of how politics can be.

Hmmm. It sounded for all the world like a non-aggression pact for 2006, when Carper will be up for a second term and Castle ought to be the Republicans' candidate of choice against him.

Castle has never been fond of questions about things like that, and when he was asked afterwards about a senatorial cease-fire, he responded characteristically. He ducked. "I don't even want to get into those things. I'm just getting through '04 right now," he said.

Carper for his part was only too happy to believe he had heard the promising words of a truce.  "I did. Peace in the valley -- or at least at the Wilmington Charter School," he quipped.

This is not really news. The chances that Carper and Castle would challenge one another are faint. They already have eluded the politics of collision twice.

As a congressman, Carper waited out Castle's two terms as governor, rather than run against him, and then they became parties to the most famous job swap in Delaware politics. In 1992 Carper took the governorship, and Castle moved into the state's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Detente prevailed again in 2000 when U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a five-term Republican, was up for re-election. Carper was the governor. Castle was the congressman. Carper said he would stay out of the Senate race if Castle wanted to take on Roth, who was 79 and blocking advancement for both of them. Castle did not, so Carper did -- and beat him.

In their talk to the students, Carper and Castle came across as comfortable not only with each other but within the congressional delegation, which also includes U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat like Carper.

Biden was not around to appear with the other two, but not because he disagreed with their premise. He was engaged in his own display of hands-across-the-aisle, jetting off to Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Egypt with Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel and Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, both Republicans, and California Sen. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat.

It made for a typical congressional recess, Biden out orbiting and leaving Carper and Castle to tend to the home fires. Still, if Biden was gone, he was not forgotten in the political morality play taking shape at the school.

"Washington doesn't work too well these days. Mike and I work great together, Mike and Joe Biden and I," Carper said.

"We work together. You've got to remember, there are only three of us down there," Castle said.

Castle mentioned a number of matters he thought ripe for more cooperation between the parties -- foreign policy and government finances, particularly deficit reduction, as well as stem-cell research and the restructuring of the intelligence agencies.

The students clearly were getting the hang of politics, Delaware style, as their seating arrangement in the classroom showed. "Have you divided up like the Democrats on one side and the Republicans on the other? Oh no, you're intermingled," Carper said.

A student wanted to know what Castle and Carper thought about possible presidential candidates for 2008.

Castle said he favored John McCain, the Arizona senator he called conservative but independent, or Colin Powell, the outgoing secretary of state, although he doubted either could win the nomination in his increasingly conservative party.

Carper said his party has not had much luck with senators or with candidates from the Northeast, and he suggested keeping watch on Virginia Gov. Mark Warner or Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln.

As much as Castle and Carper say they like Biden, they did not mention him. Even Delaware togetherness only goes so far.