Posted: April 29, 2006
FERRIS IS A BIG WHEEL
By Celia Cohen
The Republican state convention in Dewey Beach this weekend was all about Ferris W. Wharton, the ex-prosecutor whom the party wants to believe is a political super-hero able to stop its slide with the voters and strangle a Biden dynasty in the cradle.
It is a tall order to ask of anyone, let alone someone who has been a politician for one month and two days.
Since Wharton said "yes" in late March to the party's ardent recruiting efforts to land a champion for attorney general, the Delaware Republicans have made him out to be the caped crusader to right their wrongs.
"This is a big one, guys, this is a big one," said William Swain Lee, the ex-judge who ran for governor and now chairs the Sussex County Republicans.
The Republicans want Wharton to pick up a statewide office for them for the first time in 12 years and to do it against Democrat Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son who happens to come with a famous name, a Democratic edge in voter registration and the timing to be a candidate when a Republican president is skidding in the polls and gasoline is $3 a gallon.
All this from someone who was asked not too long ago by Bill Lee whom he knew in the party and blurted, "You."
The convention was Wharton's coming-out ball after a 26-year career insulated from politics as a state and federal prosecutor. From beginning to end, it was Ferris, Ferris, Ferris.
The session opened Friday evening with Wharton as the featured speaker, and it concluded Saturday with Wharton receiving the party's endorsement by acclamation.
He was the guest of honor at a party hosted by state Sen. Charles L. Copeland, a du Pont family member who ironically might see what dynasty can do for him if he runs for governor in two years.
Wharton was the toast of speeches by Bill Lee, who was the judge when Wharton co-prosecuted the celebrated murder case against Thomas J. Capano, and by W. Laird Stabler Jr., the party's revered elder statesman who was once attorney general himself.
He was saluted with the crime-fighting soundtrack of "Hawaii Five-O" and the puckish refrain of "Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?"
The Republicans were so smitten with Wharton that their activities on Friday came and went without so much as a mention of Jan C. Ting, who was eclipsed as the prize catch when Wharton came along.
Ting, a law professor, was the only statewide candidate who actually had to accomplish something at the convention. His task was to trounce Michael D. Protack, who keeps running for high office despite the pariah treatment he gets from the party, and win the endorsement for the nomination against U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Democratic ex-governor seeking a second term.
Ting did. He was endorsed by the convention 268-53, polling 83 percent of the delegates' votes to sweep past the required threshold of 60 percent. Not that it had any effect on Protack. He promptly said he would proceed against Ting in the primary on Sept. 12.
The fixation on Wharton even had the party unworried about the hole in its statewide ticket where there is supposed to be a candidate against state Treasurer Jack A. Markell, the two-term Democrat.
"We will have someone," said Terry A. Strine, the Republican state chair who preferred to focus on what the party does have in U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, state Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr., Wharton and Ting. "This is a ticket vastly more competent and accomplished and winnable than anything we would have predicted four months ago."
The convention was simply a giant commercial for Wharton -- literally. Somehow in the life of his short candidacy, there was enough money available for a camera crew to be taping him for political spots and for the convention hall at Ruddertowne to be flooded with "Wharton for attorney general" signs. They were blood red, a color for a prosecutor if ever there was one.
The message was unrelenting. Wharton is all about prosecuting. Beau Biden is all about politics.
"It is wrong to expect the system to be manipulated so that you can make a pit stop at the Attorney General's Office on your way to fulfilling your political and genetic legacy," Wharton said in his speech Friday evening.
"My campaign will win not only because of my principles and convictions, but because of another kind of convictions, the number of convicted criminals I've put behind bars versus that of my opponent. . . .
"By all accounts he is a nice young man who has served our country in the National Guard and the United States Attorney's Office in Philadelphia. He truly deserves our thanks for that service. And I mean that. But he does not deserve to be attorney general. And I mean that, too."
The words were red meat to the Republicans, but Wharton is used to addressing juries, not political conventions, and his delivery turned what was supposed to be raw into more of a mild stir fry.
The Republicans tried to encourage him. After Wharton offered a line, "When it comes to fighting crime in Delaware, Beau just doesn't know," they chanted, "Beau doesn't know! Beau doesn't know!"
By Saturday, though, when Wharton accepted his endorsement, he was looser, joking he had so much fun giving his speech the evening before that he was going to give it again -- he did not -- and egging the delegates on to another round of "Beau doesn't know!"
Amid all the adulation Stan Nichols, a convention-goer from Rehoboth Beach, sidled up to Wharton like an ancient soothsayer whose role was to whisper to the Roman emperor so the ruler would not get too full of himself, "Sic transit gloria mundi." Roughly translated, it means that glory is fleeting.
Nichols said, "Last night when I listened, the message was great, but I wasn't impressed with the messenger. I changed my mind. Last night you were reading, and today you were talking."
Wharton knows prosecuting. As for politics, the jury is out.