Posted: April 11, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Bill Lee is finding it hard to break up with politics, maybe impossible. Politics crooked a finger, and it looks like he may come running back to be the Republican candidate for governor, after all.

Lee slammed the door on politics about a month ago, but he could not resist reopening it wide enough to take another peek. Now a reconciliation could be in the works.

There is no commitment yet. Still, it is serious enough that Lee spent Thursday at the Republican Governors Association in Washington to gauge what sort of backing would be available if he decided to take on the winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary between Lt. Gov. John Carney and Treasurer Jack Markell.

"It was a positive experience, but it was not a mind-changing experience." Lee said. "I consider it unlikely that I will, although it's something I would really love to do. Being who I am and what I am, I continue to listen. The state is so precious to me, and the opportunity to serve is something I've never turned down in my whole life."

It could be Lee's third try since he gave up a judgeship, parlaying the name he made for himself at the spellbinding murder trial of Tom Capano, to run for the office he long dreamed of holding. He has come tantalizingly close, losing the Republican primary in 2000 by 46 votes and nearly denying a second term to  Ruth Ann Minner, the Democratic governor, in 2004. 

The Delaware Republicans have had a bad month since Lee appeared to walk away from the governor's race for good.

Because of Lee's background, he was regarded as the most promising alternative when Alan Levin, the ex-owner of Happy Harry's drugstores, stunned the Republicans in January by shelving the candidacy they were counting on.

Lee was persuadable, but he grew impatient with week after week of shilly-shallying from the party. He declared he was getting out of the way so someone else could be found, a decision that led off a parade of embarrassing rejections also from  Speaker Terry Spence and state Rep. Donna Stone.

State parties are nothing without a candidate for governor. With the head start and popularity of Carney and Markell, it made the Republicans look as though they were heading for virtual irrelevancy -- or worse. Mike Protack, a warmed-over perennial candidate, still is out there.

The more time was frittering away, though, the more Lee re-emerged as the only one with the experience and stature, not to mention the collective Republican affection, to run.

"People never stopped talking, and I've never stopped listening. I get phone calls every single day. I get e-mails every single day," Lee said.

The upshot was the trip to the Republican Governors Association. Lee was accompanied by Tom Ross, the Wilmington Republican chair who has expressed interest in becoming the party's state chair. Basil Battaglia, a former state chair who happened to be in Washington for a fund raiser for Congressman Mike Castle, was invited along and put in a courtesy appearance.

Lee left the RGA encouraged but undecided. "The corpse is twitching, but there's been no resurrection," he quipped.

The activity nevertheless was enough to spark speculation about a gubernatorial ticket with Lee and perhaps Michael Fleming, who was a senatorial aide to the late Bill Roth and was mentioned as a possible running mate for Levin.

Terry Strine, the Republican state chair, still has doubts about Lee.

"He is certainly interested, tempted mildly but reluctant," Strine said Friday. "I think the world of Bill. I would be thrilled if he said yes, but yesterday [at the RGA] was in no way consequential."

The Republicans are so depleted that Minner stuck it to them last weekend, when she told a Democratic convention, "Nobody has enough pride in the Republican Party to be a candidate."

As cutting as Minner's remark was, Lee scoffed at the idea it had goaded him to take another look at running. After all, in his youth he was one of the few, the proud.

"She has no idea about pride until she talks to a Marine," Lee said.