Posted: May 5, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Bill Lee has left Fantasyland. Maybe not Tomorrowland.

Lee made his return Monday from Disney World to the wonderful world of politics. He is free of the cone of silence his family imposed so strictly for the vacation that his cell phone was shut off and left behind, locked in a safe. Literally locked in a safe.

The vault was so thick and recessed, not even voice mail could penetrate it. The prisoners Lee sentenced during his days as a judge probably had more communication privileges than he did.

No matter. Not all the bans on cell phones, smoke signals, carrier pigeons and mental telepathy could keep the Delaware Republicans from sending Lee a giant valentine.

They drafted him for governor during their convention Saturday at Dewey Beach. Or was that Huey, Louie and Dewey Beach?

The Republicans want Lee to run. He wants to run. Concerns about financial and familial support for a campaign -- which would be his third for governor -- kept him out of the race so far, but those worries appear to be receding.

"The Republican convention changed the political landscape," Lee said.

On the money front, it did not hurt that the Republicans endorsed Charlie Copeland for lieutenant governor. His stature as the state Senate minority leader is a nice platform for raising money, but his birth into the du Pont family is nicer. When Copeland formed a political action committee two years ago, it was christened with $25,000 from his father and $5,000 from former Gov. Pete du Pont.

On the home front, there are signs that Lee's family is moving from unwillingness to reluctance, which is probably past the midpoint on the road to acquiescence. His son Brud, who was not along for the 11-day trip but here in Delaware, monitored developments and got involved enough to speak for his father at the convention. It was all so stressful, Brud Lee lost eight pounds.

"I was very proud of my son, who two weeks ago was determined not to support a draft," Lee said.

The convention did not stop at endorsing a Lee-Copeland ticket. It also shook up the party leadership by forcing out Terry Strine, the state party chair who has presided over a dreadful losing streak, and replacing him with Tom Ross, the Wilmington party chair who is a close ally of Lee.

"Quite frankly, Tom did more than anybody else to engineer this," Lee said.

Lee still has not said yes to the draft, but he clearly is leaning toward it to set up a race against either Lt. Gov. John Carney or Treasurer Jack Markell, whoever wins the Democratic nomination.

It does not appear to matter to Lee that the Democrats are favored, what with the track record of both their candidates and their 83,000-voter edge over the Republicans. He has an opening after spending the 2004 election warning of the consequences of a second term for Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, and -- bibbidi bobbidi boo! -- there have been budget woes, an engineering fiasco at the Indian River bridge, cancer jitters and other failings.

"Needless to say, this is not a conventional campaign. I feel much more relaxed than I did four years ago. The draft movement has placed me in a stronger position," Lee said.

"We've got meetings set up. We're going to run the drill, and if the wheels don't fall off, we're headed in the direction of a candidacy. This decision needs to be made promptly."

Whatever happens, this has been a political journey for the ages. In 2000, Lee was denied the party's endorsement but pursued the nomination for governor, anyway, only to lose the primary by a devastating 46 votes. In 2004, he won the endorsement with the approval of 76 percent of the delegates but fell just short of upsetting Minner, who was re-elected with 51 percent.

This time Lee never expected to run, but the Republicans were left essentially candidate-less when Alan Levin, the ex-owner of Harry Harry's drugstores, walked away from the campaign he had under construction. As the desperate party approached the convention, a movement to draft Lee built.

Lee was endorsed by 81 percent of the delegates. It could be called his best showing ever, except he did not show -- an unorthodox strategy, but effective. "My son suggested I go on vacation in October and November," Lee quipped.

Disney World or politics, the same character is there. Daffy.