Posted: April 21, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Republicans treated Michael D. Protack like a real live candidate Thursday evening instead of the bat in their belfry. They invited him to debate Jan C. Ting, the choice of the party establishment, for the U.S. Senate.

It did not change much. The result was a session of largely calorie-free politics with the tastiest bits coming from food -- gimmicky Chinese fortune cookies that all foretold "Jan Ting, Delaware's next U.S. senator" and a rum cake that was put up for a fairly entertaining auction.

Ting and Protack appeared at the Hockessin fire hall before about 60 people who came for dinner and the debate, which was sponsored by the New Castle County Republicans as a $40-a-ticket fund raiser.

At this point the party still is being polite to Protack, a political loner with a record of unrequited longing for high office, but the courtesy is not expected to last beyond next weekend, when the Republicans hold a state convention that is all but scripted to endorse Ting for the nomination.

Even so, Ting obviously had to work at sticking to the current party line of accommodation. For most of the debate with Protack, he had the look that people reserve for telephone solicitors and stomach aches they wish would just go away.

Ting had little to gain politically by participating, and afterwards he said he did it "because the party wants me to and it raises a lot of money for the party, and I want to help build the party."

What comes next may hardly be better. The Democrats are running U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, an ex-governor who has won more statewide elections than anyone else in Delaware history. Rick Jensen, the WDEL radio personality who moderated the debate, warned casually, "You're going to have a hard time unseating this guy. Works well with others, plays nice, has money ties."

The event was another occasion for the party to drive home the message that its endorsed candidate should not be forced into a primary, which would be held Sept. 12, especially with the Republicans fighting to reverse a trend that has left them with only two of the nine statewide offices.

"Competition and debates are always good for the party up until the convention. We have a natural deficit in the state, and a primary hurts us worse than the other party," said state Sen. Charles L. Copeland, often mentioned these days as a potential Republican candidate for governor in 2008.

Ting made the same case. He pledged twice during the debate that he would back the endorsed candidate, a promise that Protack would not match. "I'll leave my options open," Protack said later in a brief interview.

Not surprisingly, Protack focused on debating Ting, and Ting focused on the absent Carper.

Ting served notice that he will be going after Carper as the governor who signed the deregulation law that has electric bills ballooning. "He needs to be held accountable for that," Ting said.

Ting also indicated he will remind voters that Carper took contributions from Indian tribes and lobbyists connected to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- about $7,000 that Carper has given away to charity -- and will play to his own strength as a law professor by arguing that Carper was wrong to vote against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Protack, an airline pilot and former Marine Corps officer, called Ting an unsuitable candidate who could not get military veterans to vote for him because he had protested against the Vietnam War as a college student. (Carper was in the Navy then.)

"If you lose the veterans' vote, you're cooked," Protack said. To reinforce what he was saying, he distributed a handout that read, "Mr. Carper is not many things, but he is a respected veteran. Disaster awaits us."

The evening concluded with one of those silly straw polls, which Ting won 39-15. It had begun about as meaningfully with a coin toss to determine which candidate would speak first. Protack called "heads" and it came up. Lo and behold, he had won something in Republican politics.