Posted: April 5, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Sometimes politicians do not just run for the Congress but also against it.

No Delawarean ever has spent more time in the U.S. House of Representatives than Congressman Michael N. Castle, now in his record-setting seventh term, but as much as he is a part of it, he is doing what he can to separate himself from some of the policies and politics that could be troublesome back home.

As a moderate Republican, Castle straddles a gravitational no-man's-land between the House's conservative Republican leadership that tugs right and a statewide electorate that tugs left.

It is tricky ground, but not nearly as dangerous as another pitfall to make Castle put distance between himself and Capitol Hill -- the outbreak of influence-peddling that the Democrats are calling a "culture of corruption." No one wants to get sucked into that political black hole.

If anyone is up to the political origami of using the advantages of incumbency to inoculate himself against its disadvantages, it is Castle. Here is the way he opened a recent fund-raising letter:

"I have always been proud to serve as your congressman. Sad to say, however, I'm not always proud of the way Congress operates."

Castle is perhaps as nimble a politician as Delaware has. He is the last Republican standing with a major office, as the voters have pruned his party from the governorship and the U.S. Senate, and he does it by polling about 70 percent on Election Day after Election Day.

His political footwork has kept him in statewide office since 1980 as a lieutenant governor, governor and the only U.S. representative that Delaware gets.

This time Castle is showing off his steps early and often, campaigning in a year that is looking dicey for the Republicans nationwide with Iraq and Katrina and a president in a slide.

The Delaware Democrats have not thrown their best at Castle -- no Carney or Markell -- but they did get Dennis Spivack, a lawyer who is not their customary laughingstock for the Congress, and they have him in the hail-Mary spot on the ballot between a Carper for the Senate and a Biden for attorney general.

Spivack wants to yoke Castle to the congressional conservative Republicans. He has said the incumbent is no moderate but a sort of unrepentant Scrooge, who has pared away programs for "children, needy families, the elderly, the sick and the poor" while giving tax cuts to the rich.

"I acknowledge that my opponent is a decent man and is well-known to the people of this state, but he has failed to stand by his 'so-called moderation,' and he has failed to stand by the people of Delaware when voting on the major issues of the day," Spivack said when he declared his candidacy last month.

It is one of the ironies of politics that the power of congressional office itself can be used to run against what the Congress is doing, and Castle did.

Earlier this week he reinforced his moderate credentials by submitting a budget proposal to add $7 billion for education, health and fuel bills for low-income households, and this morning he was on C-SPAN to debate budget priorities with Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, a leading conservative Republican.

Castle acknowledged on air the overriding importance of Iraq and Katrina on the budget, even as he argued for his own proposal. "I am very concerned about the programs that serve the people at home," he said.

Castle also used his C-SPAN appearance to reassert his differences with the president over embryonic stem cell research. There probably is not another issue that Castle cares about more, but it also is not a bad position for a Republican running in a state that prizes scientific study and has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since George W. Bush's father was elected in 1988.

"It could be the first bill he vetoes," Castle said.

In another luxury of office, Castle can use policy, like the budget, to take care of the politics of countering Spivack's portrayal of him as a threat to widows and orphans.

"I'll worry about him in August, September, election time. I have to go about doing my job," Castle said.