Posted: Feb. 1, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Tom Ridge, the Pennsylvania ex-governor who was the first secretary of Homeland Security, took his share of knocks for setting up a color-coded warning system, but he was good-natured when asked to apply the concept to his friend John McCain's Republican presidential campaign.

"It's green. All systems are go," Ridge said.

Ridge stood in for McCain at stops Friday in Millsboro, Dover and New Castle during a swing through Delaware, just as the state appears to be breaking the candidate's way for the presidential primary on Tuesday.

Ridge traveled with Congressman Mike Castle, a fellow Republican ex-governor, with the pair of them coming across as frank as if they just fell off the "Straight Talk Express" bus.

It was hard to think they were the types who simply would spiel political spin about McCain, not after Ridge, as a former member of the Bush administration, was open to saying in a free-form conversation over lunch, "Waterboarding is, was and always will be torture." 

Ridge and Castle endorsed McCain early and stuck with him through the months his campaign was as flat as a leftover souffle, but they conceded there were times they never would have predicted McCain would rise again.

As a matter of fact, their lunch was barbecue at a Dover restaurant called Where Pigs Fly, as a jolly reminder that McCain once seemed likely to win the nomination only when pigs fly.

"There were times of great stress and distress," Ridge said.

Ridge, who has known McCain since the two were elected to the Congress in 1982 as Vietnam veterans, Ridge as a decorated infantry staff sergeant and McCain as a Navy aviator POW, caught up with McCain during the campaign's dog days of August and found him down but not out.

"He looked me in the eye and said, you know, Tom, I've been through worse."

There is one good thing about being left for politically dead. People love a comeback.

Castle and Ridge were busy collecting endorsements for McCain all day, building the momentum in Delaware. They took in refugees from Rudy Giuliani's shipwreck -- Louis Freeh, the FBI ex-director; Priscilla Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman; and Cathy Murray, the state party secretary -- as well as Basil Battaglia, the Republican state chair emeritus.

The only counter came from Mitt Romney's campaign. It announced an endorsement from state Rep. Joe Booth, a Georgetown Republican, but it was a ripple, not a splash. State Auditor Tom Wagner, who chairs Romney's state steering committee, joined Castle and Ridge for lunch out of respect, he said, for two ex-governors and let the McCain-iacs have their day.

Mike Huckabee was not heard from, unless it counts that Where Pigs Fly is one of the interests of Ray Clatworthy, a Republican who ran twice for the U.S. Senate and backs Huckabee.

McCain, coming off wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, is surging toward Super Duper Tuesday, when the nominee could become clear as more than 20 states, including Delaware, vote. If McCain wraps it up, as he could, it would be another uncanny example of Castle's political clairvoyance.

Castle can pick them. Ten years ago he backed Dennis Hastert for the House Speaker when Hastert was written off. Two years ago he backed John Boehner for the House Republican leader when Boehner was the underdog. Now he is on the verge of doing it again with McCain.

"I don't think I have any special aptitude. I kind of pick people who like other people. I do this on my own gut and whether I know somebody and have a good feeling about them," he said.

It is intuition, not luck. "I don't do as well with horses and slot machines," Castle said.