Posted: April 25, 2008 


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republicans are on the verge of putting together a ticket of Bill Lee for governor and Charlie Copeland for lieutenant governor, a combination that would bring the party roaring back into business for the campaign season.

If all goes as planned, the Lee-Copeland slate will be launched officially at the Republican state convention on Saturday, May 3, when the party meets in Dewey Beach to endorse candidates in statewide races.

It will take a draft at the convention to make Lee the Republicans' choice for governor. He has been sitting on the sidelines, waiting for a sign that the party is as serious about having him run as he is, ever since the Republicans gubernatorial plans were vaporized in January by the unexpected exit of Alan Levin, the former executive of Happy Harry's drugstores.

Copeland is taking the direct route. He filed Friday morning to run for lieutenant governor.

The likely ticket symbolizes relief and recovery for the Republicans, who have been flirting with irrelevance as their statewide ballot went begging while the Democrats' had the opposite problem, too many qualified candidates for too few offices. The party leadership was absolutely giddy.

"Always darkest before the dawn, I see a little sunrise over the horizon, although I only know for sure about Charlie Copeland," said Priscilla Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman.

"If Bill Lee accepts the draft, there will be a lot of excitement not only in the party but for the state of Delaware, because candidates who really want to improve and reform the way the state has been managed for the last eight years are stepping up," said Tom Ross, the Wilmington Republican chair who has worked to recruit candidates.

Lee and Copeland are all the Republicans could ask for -- a pair of experienced politicians to unite the party's most reliable constituencies with Lee coming from downstate in Sussex County, where conservative politics is a way of life, and Copeland based upstate in Chateau Country, where the money is.

Not only that, but Copeland owns a printing company.

Lee, a retired judge who was the 2004 nominee, is a familiar campaigner after nearly keeping Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner from a second term. He has been a household name since he presided with celebrity at the trial of Tom Capano, the state's most notorious murderer.

Copeland, a du Pont family member, is the state Senate minority leader whom the party regarded as gubernatorial material himself. A legislator since 2002, Copeland is up for re-election this year. By running instead for lieutenant governor, he will be out of his Senate seat at the end of the term.

"When I spoke to Bill Lee to encourage him to run for governor, he asked me if I would run with him," Copeland said in a press release. "I decide that to make a difference, I had to give up my seat in the Senate and run for higher office."

It is all somewhat surreal -- particularly because it is happening with Lee absent. He left Friday morning for a vacation at Disney World in Florida with his daughter and her family, not to return until May 5, two days after the convention. At the insistence of the family, which is against another campaign, he promised to leave politics and his cell phone behind.

It is a serendipitous change for the Republicans. By their convention next weekend, they could be in a position to begin the drive toward the election with an enviable head start over the Democrats, who will not know who their candidates for governor and lieutenant governor will be until they are sorted out by the primary on Sept. 9.

The Democrats have Lt. Gov. John Carney and Treasurer Jack Markell running for governor and Insurance Commissioner Matt Denn and Wilmington Council President Ted Blunt competing for lieutenant governor.

One Democrat was vastly unimpressed by the Republicans' ticket building. "Doesn't it look desperate to nominate someone for governor who isn't running and is on Space Mountain at the time?" he said.

The idea of Lee and Copeland as running mates has been percolating behind the scenes, known only to a select handful of Republican insiders, apparently since late February. The full party leadership was not even informed until Friday morning during a conference call.

The first public hint came two weeks ago, when Lee met with officials from the Republican Governors Association in Washington. It broke into full view Friday when Copeland filed.

The political strength of Lee and Copeland is expected to swat away a lesser field at the convention, from the forgettable candidacy of Mike Protack for governor to an otherwise realistic candidacy of Eric Buckson, a Kent County Levy Court commissioner, for lieutenant governor.

Michael Fleming, a former aide to the late U.S. Sen. Bill Roth, was mentioned for lieutenant governor but already switched his sights to running for Copeland's state Senate seat.

No matter who is endorsed, all the candidates are free to run for the nomination in the primary.

It is a remarkable turnaround. As April began, the Republicans were so depleted that Minner told a Democratic Party gathering, "Nobody has enough pride in the Republican Party to be a candidate."

As April ends, it was different. "I guess Ruth Ann Minner was wrong. There's pride in the Republican Party, after all," said Rakestraw, the national committeewoman.

There could hardly be more fluid political circumstances. By the time Bill Lee gets off that plane in 10 days, he could have a lot in common with Rip Van Winkle.