Posted: Feb. 28, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The weather outside was frightful, but Sussex County was so delightful that Charles L. Copeland, the Republican state senator from Chateau Country, showed up for two events there in four days, as though the temperature was in the 80s and an upstater could be expected to drive south and maybe get a little sun.

Copeland put on his blue jeans Friday and sauntered into the Georgetown Oyster Eat to join the tribal rituals of men being men, and then he switched to a jacket and tie Monday to give a speech at a Lincoln Day Dinner for Sussex Republicans in Rehoboth Beach.

Unless Copeland motored about 100 miles from home because he had figured out how to get a tan from the frigid curlicues of the Dolle's sign, something was going on here.

Not that he was saying. "I like oysters," Copeland said. "I was asked to speak."

Never mind. There were plenty of other people to say it for him. George Parish, the Sussex County clerk of the peace who was standing next to Copeland at the Lincoln Day Dinner, inclined his head toward Copeland and said, "Say hello to the governor."

Mary Spicer, the president of the Eastern Sussex Republican Club, was the one who invited Copeland to give a speech and made it very clear why. "Because Charlie is potentially our candidate for governor in 2008. We want him to get as much name recognition and exposure as possible," she said.

Running for governor would be one of those reasons to be heading out to Sussex County in February, a month so otherwise inhospitable that people have elevated hibernating to holiday status with Groundhog's Day.

Copeland -- call him "Charlie," the way his famous cousin who did become governor was known as "Pete," not Pierre -- is not exactly running for governor, though. It is more like strolling for governor, or perhaps trolling for governor, but either way, this 43-year-old du Pont family member who runs a printing firm appears to be emerging as the Republicans' default candidate for 2008.

Maybe it will work out for the Republicans, the same way the party coalesced around the dynastic candidacy of George W. Bush for president in 2000 and shoved him across the finish line, the final push coming from a state where his brother was the governor.

Copeland does not have the Republican field entirely to himself. House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith and Senate Minority Leader John C. Still III, who both have more than 15 years in the legislature, would not mind pulling rank and seniority on Copeland, a backbencher elected in 2002.

William Swain Lee, the ex-judge who came tantalizingly close to ousting Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in 2004, has not ruled out another run, either, although his preference is for Copeland to prove himself so Lee can stay out of it.

Still, the drift seems to be toward Copeland. It could be good enough to bring him the nomination, but it would be an empty prize unless he can stop the Democrats from winning their fifth gubernatorial election in a row.

Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell are a pair of terriers going after the Democratic nomination. While their rivalry gives the Republicans hope that they will blast each other to smithereens, leaving them too damaged to be elected governor, it also has them far outpacing Copeland as candidates.

Carney and Markell both have won statewide multiple times. They both are familiar with the world of pollsters and political consultants. They both have raised great gobs of campaign contributions, with Carney sitting on $200,000 after his 2004 re-election and Markell going into the 2006 election with $1.5 million, including $725,000 he loaned himself.

Copeland, whose four-year term is up in 2008, has $65,000 in his campaign account and did virtually no fund raising last year.

The Lincoln Day Dinner with its audience of about 110 Republicans was an opportunity for Copeland to try out some gubernatorial-sounding themes. He declared that state government needs to be run by someone with an entrepreneurial eye, not by bureaucracy, so it could be consumer-driven in its outlook.

"More choices at less cost and better quality," Copeland proposed.

It left him sounding like a candidate who would rather run against Carney, a government man, than Markell, a fellow M.B.A. who made his mark and his money in the telecommunications revolution.

There is a certain irony in the Republicans' embrace of Copeland, a du Pont heir, while they exuberantly bash the Democrats over the lineage of Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son who is running for attorney general.

"It's a fair question," said Bill Lee, who simultaneously chairs the Sussex Republicans and works cordially with Beau Biden at the law firm of Bifferato Gentilotti Biden & Balick. "The difference is that this is a person who serves in the state Senate and worked in the party before that."

The political parties may point fingers, but Delaware voters have never seemed concerned about family ties. There have been Democratic Bayards in politics since the early days of the Republic, and the state has been turning to Republican du Ponts for a century. Another Biden is unlikely to cause much of a stir, anymore than another du Pont is.

By the way, it also may pay to keep track of U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and his family. The competitive Democrat has been squiring his teen-age boys around to the military academies -- just when a uniform has come to mean something in politics again.