Posted: Feb. 21, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

No one is campaigning seriously yet, not with the voters clinging to the myth that electioneering should wait until Labor Day, but the candidates are not exactly dormant, either.

There are ways they can nudge themselves into the voters' attention, even in the doldrums of winter with Washington's Birthday still a day away, and one of the easiest is public appearances that correspond conveniently with their day jobs.

It was evident Tuesday, when it was possible to catch up with U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Democrat up for re-election this year, and also with Jan C. Ting, the Republican expected to be the nominee against him.

Carper and Ting have yet to engage -- "I don't really know him," Carper said -- and Ting still has to dispatch Michael D. Protack, a persistent Republican gadfly who also wants to run, but they spent the morning in a shadow campaign of what is to come.

Carper and Ting talked policy and politics, each one playing to his own strength, although strength is relative when the incumbent has won more statewide elections than anyone else in Delaware history and the challenger is a curiosity to all but Republican insiders.

Carper was in Newark. He was in his element -- talking about trains, one of his favorite things, during a regional forum at the University of Delaware on rail transportation and then showboating a little by buying Girl Scout cookies across town at the local Girl Scout headquarters.

Ting was on the radio. He was in his element, too -- as a Temple University law professor invited to talk about immigration, his specialty, on "Radio Times," broadcast on WHYY-FM in Philadelphia.

If anybody would be out campaigning now, it would be Carper. He campaigns the way U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., his fellow Democrat, talks. Compulsively.

In front of about 75 people, Carper used his trademark blend of the modesty and horn-blowing that has carried him through 11 statewide victories as a three-term treasurer, five-term congressman, two-term governor and one-term senator.

As Carper discussed passenger and freight rail, he joked that his listeners might be able to see Beth Osborne, his policy adviser on transportation, move her lips (as though she were the ventriloquist and he the dummy), but when the moderator noted that Carper's biography was part of the information packets, he blurted wittily, "Could you read it aloud?"

Carper, who served on the Amtrak board from 1994 to 1998 while he was governor, was as much of a true believer as his listeners. Carper is not folksy -- Joe Biden is folksy -- but he gets there when he talks about trains. They are a fond memory from his childhood when he visited his grandparents in rural West Virginia, where he was born, and they lived beside some railroad tracks and the occasional train was a highlight in a youngster's day.

As a senator, Carper is a key advocate for more federal funding for rail service. Beyond his childhood nostalgia, he believes it can relieve congestion on the highways and airways -- recent flights to Chicago had him agreeing with fellow flyers who called their airline "Northworst" -- and also alleviate dependence on foreign oil.

"To move one ton of freight by rail from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Mass., takes one gallon of diesel fuel. I rest my case," Carper said.

Carper suggested the rail system could use a president from the Northeast -- pick a party, any party -- to replace the Texas oilman in the White House now. "When Joe Biden is president, or Hillary Clinton or George Pataki or Mitt Romney, it will be a new day for passenger rail," he said. "If John McCain winds up as president, we're in trouble."

After the forum, Carper drove across Newark for a public purchase of Girl Scout cookies. This was not surprising, not from someone who once put out a press release before he donated blood, and these cookies were not just any cookies.

These cookies were for a Good Cause, just the thing for a politician who has mastered how to do well by doing good. These cookies were being sold by some Brownies for "Operation Taste of Home," sending Girl Scout cookies to military troops overseas. Carper bought a case for $42 after an earnest discussion with six Brownies, all second graders, about the mission.

"The idea is for someone to buy a box or a couple of boxes of cookies, but they don't eat them?" he said. "I used to be in the Navy during the Vietnam War, but we never got cookies."

As Carper handed the Brownies a check, Jan Ting was coming on the radio. A hard-liner on immigration, Ting was there to joust with a Princeton professor who favors more of a porous border. It was a highbrow program with none of the common touch of cookies.

Unlike Carper, who naturally is expected to mix his political role in policy discussions, Ting was introduced as a professor and former immigration official and had to drag in his political interests himself. He did it, too, making a point to say that immigration policy was "one of the reasons I just declared my candidacy for the U.S. Senate in the state of Delaware."

Ting wants to build a border fence as a matter of security to keep out Al Qaeda operatives. He is skeptical of amnesty programs for illegal immigrants -- "it is really making fools of the people waiting to come in" -- and he has no sympathy for employers who keep their labor costs down by exploiting workers who smuggled themselves into the country.

"The reality is our borders are out of control," Ting said. "Once we gain control of our border, then we can have a sensible discussion on what our immigration policy should be . . . and what makes the most economic sense for the United States."

It was clear Ting was comfortable in the public arena. It also was clear he was as willing to part company with his party's president on immigration as Carper was on rail policy. Ting does not share the Texas interest in guest workers, believing such a policy would undermine national security and excuse Mexico from developing its own economy, instead of exporting its problems.

"I think President Bush is under the illusion that he has a special relationship with Mexico," Ting said.

The radio program lasted an hour. There were no Girl Scout cookie sales afterwards to prolong Ting's presence in public, not in the political wasteland of winter, although his time will come.