Posted: May 19, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republicans put their state convention Saturday in Dover on speed dial -- two hours from banging the gavel to adjourning.

They were electing new leadership, so there was no sense dwelling on it. Who wants to be the captain of a titanically challenged party?

The delegates kept Terry A. Strine as state chair for another two-year term, his third since 2003. With no one else showing any interest, Strine was the best they could do -- a part-time Delawarean with his living room of choice in Pennsylvania and a record of losing the attorney general, insurance commissioner and seven seats in the state House of Representatives, putting it in play.

This is a party that lacks solid prospects. Not even a come-hither election, beckoning in 2008, has helped much. The Republicans have everything they could wish for -- open races for governor and lieutenant governor with Democrats bumped by term limits and perhaps a vacancy for insurance commissioner -- except candidates.

Strine perseveres because he has the makeup of a bustling cheerleader, but it is hard to rouse enthusiasm for a blank slate.

Even the office that should have provided 300-plus Republicans with a burst of pride failed them. Speaker after speaker, either at a pre-convention dinner Friday or the convention Saturday at the Dover Sheraton, did not bother to mention George W. Bush. The president has become as memorable as a hangover.

It all has the Delaware Democrats acting as though the Republicans are irrelevant. The Democrats are cutting and pasting their 2008 ticket, trying to find upwardly mobile places for Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., Treasurer Jack A. Markell and Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn, seemingly without any worries that the Republicans could be a threat to disrupt them.

The most encouragement the Republicans could muster came from Michael S. Steele, the guest speaker who was the former lieutenant governor of Maryland.

Steele told them he was downcast after losing a U.S. Senate race as part of the nationwide Republican drubbing last year -- "You can't please everyone, but you can certainly tick them all off at the same time, and that's exactly what we did" -- but has made it his mission to rebuild the party.

"In life there are peaks and there are valleys, and the key to life is knowing there is another peak beyond the horizon," Steele said. He quoted Thomas Edison, the inventor -- "'Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up'" -- and urged, "Don't give up."

As barren as the convention appeared to be, there were glimmerings that maybe it was not. Former Gov. Pierre S. du Pont, a Republican hero who was there to introduce Steele, used to have a saying, "Enter the battle while it is at its lowest moment. There is nothing to lose, and there is nowhere to go but up."

This low moment could be the one that brings in Alan B. Levin, the drug store executive who merged Happy Harry's into Walgreens. Levin is regarded as prime gubernatorial material, and he came to the convention to see what was what.

Levin had no official role, but it did not matter. He was squired around at the dinner by U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, an ex-governor himself, who said, "He rises to the top of all Republican lists and frankly a lot of Democrats' lists."

Levin furthered the cause by mingling with some legislators, sitting at what passes in the Republican Party these days for a Futures Table of climbers, even if it meant they had to look outside of this state with its Democratic inclinations.

The table was hosted by Dover Rep. Donna D. Stone, who has made her way to become the president-elect of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Others were Greenville Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, the chair of the Council of State Governments, and Dover Rep. Pamela J. Thornburg, state chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Seaford Rep. Daniel B. Short also had a seat, even though he was newly elected. His tablemates said he was there for "grooming."

In addition, there was Brandywine Hundred Rep. Robert J. Valihura Jr., who had a somewhat whimsical banner hanging in the convention hall. At the top it said he was running for re-election, and at the bottom it said he was running for insurance commissioner.

It was confusing and also illegal -- only one state office per election. Valihura had no interest in clearing it up, quipping, "I don't know who would have done that," and joined in the joking about who would win a primary if Stone ran for insurance commissioner, too. Her name has been floated.

The legislators kidded Levin several times about how diverse they were in gender and geography, as though they were in a lineup for lieutenant governor. He could choose whatever he wanted for a running mate -- upstate, downstate, male or female.

A late arrival to the group was Millsboro Rep. Gregory A. Hastings, who won his House seat just two weeks ago in a special election. Hastings had been table-hopping earlier with Hockessin Rep. Nick T. Manolakos, a rookie legislator who has five months in Dover to his credit and was thrilled to have someone to introduce around as "the new guy."

The Republicans were happy to have one. Hastings was the one guaranteed applause line at the convention, where they could have used more to cheer.