Posted: May 11, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Delaware Republicans are a restless and smoldering party as they go into their annual state convention, scheduled for the end of the week in Dewey Beach.

The turmoil probably will not color the showcase event of statewide endorsements, which are expected to go easily Saturday to U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, who is running unopposed, as well as William Swain Lee and James P. Ursomarso, the governor-lieutenant governor ticket, leaving the suspense to a close contest for insurance commissioner.

Instead, the battlefield is a pair of internal party elections Friday evening for national committeeman and national committeewoman, who together with the state chairman are the Delaware Republicans' chief officials and represent the state on the national party's governing committee.

Up until now, the posts have been rocks of stability with W. Laird Stabler Jr., a former state attorney general and U.S. attorney, as the national committeeman since 1985 and Priscilla B. Rakestraw, a former New Castle County register in chancery, as the national committeewoman since 1976.

Both were unopposed when they won their last four-year terms for these unpaid posts in 2000, but not this time.

After they issued a joint letter earlier this year saying they would seek re-election, Rakestraw drew a challenge from Gretchen Ellixson, a Brandywine Hundred Republican, but Stabler seemed as untouchable as ever until late last week, when a rival came out of nowhere -- Thomas H. Draper, a Reboboth Beach businessman whose interests include WBOC-TV 16 and the new Cannery Village in Milton.

Rakestraw is expected to prevail, but Stabler, long regarded as the reigning gentleman of Delaware politics, appears inclined to step away to keep the peace, and it is the audacity of shouldering Stabler aside that has the party inflamed.

It is being taken as personal and also ideological. The run at Rakestraw and Stabler, both part of the moderate Republicans who have dominated the state party, is coming from the right.

Until recently, the Delaware GOP largely has avoided such showdowns, in keeping with the state's general leeriness of ideology. There is a reason that Castle, a national leader of the moderate Republicans, routinely polls 70 percent of the vote, and U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a centrist Democrat, has won more statewide elections here than anybody.

The Republicans' rightward activism is being attributed to Terry A. Strine, elected a year ago as the state chairman, who has led a field trip to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and urged party members in a newsletter to become a "truth squad" by stoking up on Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

Strine says he did not stir up Ellixson and Draper -- "I wish I had this much power," he said -- but he has not moved to preserve Rakestraw or Stabler, and Draper gave Strine as a key reason for becoming a candidate for national committeeman.

"Hopefully I'll help Terry Strine, be a good Delawarean and have some fun," Draper said.

For now, the contest for national committeeman is highly volatile. There is an underground "Draft Stabler" drive that would roar to life in a heartbeat if Stabler gave the word. Bill Lee, who would lose a valuable ally at Republican headquarters with Stabler's exit, has offered to nominate him.

It is also possible other candidates could emerge between now and Friday if Stabler remains determined to walk away rather than fight, as it appears.

"I frankly don't feel like running a campaign," Stabler said.