Posted: Feb. 6, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Exactly a year before Delaware's presidential primary, John McCain's campaign for the Republican nomination already was stirring here in one of those back rooms that politics cannot do without.

This one was tucked away in Kid Shelleen's restaurant in Wilmington, the local politicos snaking their way there through the public tables Monday evening, past the civilians whose calendar moves casually through Super Bowl Sunday and Valentine's Day on toward St. Patrick's Day, not through the intensity of the dates for the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary and Super Tuesday.

McCain's camp sent in a field operative, looking to strike a little political tinder in the February deep-freeze as the first to arrive for a presidential contest expected to be so herculean that even Delaware's handful of delegates is worth fighting for.

For Michael Leavitt, the mid-Atlantic political director for McCain with responsibility from Virginia to New York, it was the first of four sessions over two days here, with stops in Wilmington upstate and Dover, Rehoboth Beach and Seaford downstate.

About 20 local Republicans attended, some committed, some curious, all gauging the depth of McCain's efforts to provide what people in politics crave -- personal attention from someone who could be the next president.

This time around, the political flirting essentially will be limited to the Delaware Republicans, because the Delaware Democrats have had a candidate issued to them. As long as Joe Biden is in the race, there will be no sightings here of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or anybody else.

Not that the state Democrats are sitting on the sidelines. They have their parts to play, too. Just last weekend, Attorney General Beau Biden rounded up a squad of them to talk up his father in the back rooms of the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting in Washington.

Even rivals united for it -- Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell, both with thoughts of the governorship, and Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn and Wilmington Council President Theodore Blunt, both running for lieutenant governor.

The Delaware contingent, which also included the likes of Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker, New Castle County Executive Christopher A. Coons and AFL-CIO President Samuel L. Lathem, as well as state party officials such as Chair John D. Daniello, was ethnically and racially diverse, all the more to blunt Joe Biden's remark praising Barack Obama with faint damnation.

"I want to do the favorite-son type of thing, making sure everybody's marching together," Lathem said.

Delaware Republicans, meanwhile, are getting a taste of the sorority-like rush of an early primary state, its voters scheduled to go the polls Tuesday, Feb. 5, in a cluster of states that comes in a revised selection calendar right after the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.

Rudy Giuliani was here last month to keynote a Republican dinner. McCain, who headlined a fund raiser last spring for U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle in Dewey Beach, is sure to return -- "sooner rather than later," Leavitt, his regional field director, promised.

McCain already had the fortune to secure the early backing of Republican National Committeeman John R. Matlusky, one of the state's top party officials, to provide Leavitt with entree to potential backers, contributors and volunteers.

"When you know who you're for, you should jump in with both feet. I think McCain is someone who can tackle the problems of a very dangerous world," Matlusky said.

Leavitt also has the advantage of working for a candidate who appears to be a good fit here -- moderate enough for the moderate Republicans and conservative enough for most conservative Republicans.

The gathering Monday evening, for example, drew a moderate like Wilmington Republican Chair Thomas S. Ross, who has signed on, and a conservative like Senate Minority Leader Charles L. Copeland, the potential gubernatorial candidate who was just looking.

"I'm a McCain guy," Ross said. "John McCain is very conservative on some issues and considered more moderate in others. The nation sees someone who can bring the country together for the common good, and it's been a long time since we've had somebody who can do that -- maybe since Ronald Reagan."

McCain's campaign intends to have an office up and running here by the spring with local people staffing it, Leavitt said. It would be the most expansive presence for any candidate since Delaware switched from an obscure caucus state to an early primary state in 1996.

For now, though, the campaign simply is taking names for what comes next, or as Matlusky put it this bleak winter night, "This is actually practice for trudging through the snow next February for John McCain's lit drop."