Posted: Feb. 6, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The showcase dinner for W. Laird Stabler Jr. was not just an affectionate tribute to a Republican icon, it also was a flurry of political check writing that benefited the Delaware Republican Party.

Among the 465 people who overflowed the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington on Jan. 27, the best seats in the house went to the "Gold Sponsors" who paid $5,000 for the event, far above the individual ticket price of $175.

There were 25 Gold Sponsors, and naturally they were rewarded with perquisites, including a private reception with Stabler and former President George H.W. Bush, the evening's most heralded guest.

The Gold Sponsors also were listed on the program, and for one of them, it clearly was the point of his contribution, because going to the dinner was not on his schedule.

This Gold Sponsor was U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who knows an early presidential primary state when he sees one.

Except for McCain, the list of Gold Sponsors was what normally would be expected at a plummy Republican event in Delaware, especially one focused on Laird Stabler, a Chateau Country Republican who married into the du Pont family and served as attorney general, U.S. attorney and Republican national committeeman.

Among the Gold Sponsors, there were, for example: Michele M. Rollins, the business executive who nearly ran for the U.S. Senate; Charles M. Cawley, the former leader of the former MBNA; Betsy Walker Field, a Bush family cousin; and various branches of the du Pont family.

McCain's out-of-state interest stood out, second only to the personal appearance of the former president and father of the current president. If McCain was looking to attract attention on a presidential scale, he did.

"If you were going to make a contribution to an event, could you have picked a better one?" said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman who chaired the dinner for Stabler.

"Sen. McCain is extremely active in all the states, indicating his interest in being the Republican nominee in 2008. I think this contribution shows a keen interest in the early primary state of Delaware," Rakestraw added.

McCain's check, which came from Straight Talk America, his political organization, is the second time there has been a presidential incursion in the state pointing toward 2008.

Over the summer U.S. Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican, showed up for Sussex County Councilman Vance C. Phillips' annual Crab Feat & Watermelon Extravaganza at Trap Pond. (For anyone keeping track of presidential politics on the Democratic side, home-state sightings of U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. do not count.)

Delaware is working on establishing a niche for itself within the presidential nomination calendar. It is settling in with a cluster of states that vote a week after New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary and was rewarded for it in 2004 with a visit from John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat then catapulting to the lead for the Democratic nomination. There was no need for Republican activity that year because President George W. Bush's re-nomination was a foregone conclusion.

McCain's check was arranged about a week before Stabler's dinner during a conversation between David A. Crossan, the Republicans' executive director, and Michael P. Dennehy, the political contact for McCain. They met at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in Washington and got to talking about what McCain could do to help with party building here.

Actually, McCain already has what is probably the best Republican connection he could have in Delaware through U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle.

Even better than sending a check, McCain was the featured speaker when Castle held a fund-raiser, also an elaborate event at the Gold Ballroom, in 2002. The evening turned more memorable when Castle and McCain crossed Rodney Square and party lines to catch part of a gala hosted by the Jewish National Fund at MBNA headquarters to honor Biden. It was one of those convergences that seem to happen only in Delaware.

There is a possibility that McCain could be back in Delaware as he tours the country on 2006 campaign visits and fund raisers. “It’s very likely you’ll see Sen. McCain in Delaware,” Dennehy said.

Running for president is a delicate dance, and part of it is not talking about it. To hear Dennehy tell it, McCain only has the best interests of the Republican Party in his thoughts as he makes his rounds. Never mind that Dennehy himself is based in New Hampshire. Nothing about New Hampshire is ever accidental in presidential politics.

“Sen. McCain’s priority this year is to help state parties help candidates from the top of the ticket all the way down the ballot,” Dennehy said.

And if McCain’s Gold Sponsorship brings him good will in future endeavors? “If that’s the case, that’s wonderful, too,” Dennehy said.