Posted: May 3, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

This was not a mere convention. This was a restoration. The Delaware Republican Party that went into a weekend session at Dewey Beach was not the Republican Party that came out.

In a move so old-fashioned it was new again, the Republicans had a draft for governor. They recruited an absent Bill Lee, the retired judge, and also gave him more heft by pairing him with Charlie Copeland, the state Senate minority leader, for lieutenant governor.

It was a ticket that lurched into focus barely in time for the convention when Copeland came forward. It emerged from so far out of nowhere, not even a self-respecting Ouija board would have had the gumption to predict it a week or so ago.

Now the party waits for Lee's "Y-E-S."

Not for the first time, a political bombshell like the gubernatorial ticket begat another political bombshell. The Republicans blew up their top party leadership.

The party registered a shattering vote of no confidence in Terry Strine, the state chair, by shunning him 40-35 in an election Friday evening for national committeeman, a contest he once thought would be a walkover. It went to Laird Stabler III, a lawyer/lobbyist whose late father held this prestigious seat on the Republican National Committee, the party's governing council.

Hours afterward on Saturday, a shaken Strine resigned with half of his two-year term as chair to go, and the party quickly installed Tom Ross, the Wilmington Republican chair, in his place.

This is what parties do when they have almost nothing left to lose. The Republicans have been losing and losing -- four consecutive elections for governor and lieutenant governor, both U.S. Senate seats, all but two of the nine statewide offices, and a steady drain of their majority in the state House of Representatives, their only remaining power base.

Despite the daring turns, the convention was no revolt. It was more of a homecoming by an old guard reasserting itself.

The Republicans kept the people who sustained them for decades -- people like Bill Lee, who was a Goldwater delegate before his days as a judge, and Priscilla Rakestraw, who was unopposed in her re-election as national committeewoman, her post since the mid-1970s.

They grafted on a new generation by tapping Stabler and Copeland, both from the du Pont family that has been the party's foundation for more than a century. It was roots and sprouts.

"The slumbering giant has been awakened," Ross said. "We are a party on the move. Couple that with a state that is broken. Today the call goes out, not just to Republicans, but Democrats, independents and people of good will up and down the state, because help in on the way."

Here were the Republicans, meeting at a convention center called Ruddertowne and sounding as though they finally found their rudder.

Even so, the Republicans' restoration was a little raggedy. They did come up with a complete ticket, endorsing not just Lee and Copeland but Mike Castle for the Congress as usual, John Brady for insurance commissioner, and avoiding a U.S. Senate primary when Tim Smith gave way to Christine O'Donnell, who squeaked by the 60-percent threshold required to win the party's support.

They could not come up with the standard victory pose, however, the one with all of the endorsed candidates in a row and their hands clasped above them. The ticket was wobbly. Lee was elsewhere, officially uncommitted, Brady was in the hospital, and Castle had departed.

Lee was away in Disney World, where family members squirreled him as they tried to stay in denial about another demanding race for the governorship, after wrenchingly close calls in the 2000 primary and the 2004 election. Lee was being held incommunicado, his cell phone banned, and there were no Mickey Mouse ears big enough for him to catch the action back home.

Lee's son Brud -- formally William Swain Lee Jr. -- did attend the convention, all but predicting his father would accept the draft, sometime after he returns Monday. "My father has never refused the call to serve this state or this party. Never," Brud Lee said.

Brady was closer, admitted to Beebe hospital nearby in Lewes. He went in Thursday night and expected to be there at least until Monday for tests on his heart.

"I felt sick. I went to the hospital. They advised me to rest. Even though I'm wearing a polo shirt saying, 'Elect John Brady, let the Big Guy work for you,' that was as far as I got for the convention," Brady quipped Saturday in a telephone interview.

In another lose end, Mike Protack and his quixotic search for high office are out there again. Protack has careened from primaries for governor to U.S. senator and back again, and he vowed to take his current campaign for governor to the primary on Sept. 9, even though Lee was endorsed by 81 percent of the delegates.

All in all, though, the Republicans were proud of themselves. They have a ticket. The Democrats do not, as they await the outcome of the primary for governor between Lt. Gov. John Carney and Treasurer Jack Markell, the one for lieutenant governor between Insurance Commissioner Matt Denn and Wilmington Council President Ted Blunt, and others for the Congress and insurance commissioner. Only U.S. Sen. Joe Biden is in place.

It is a far cry from a month ago, when the Republicans were so desperate for a gubernatorial ticket that Gov. Ruth Ann Minner taunted them during a Democratic convention, saying, "Nobody has enough pride in the Republican Party to be a candidate."

Rakestraw, the national committeewoman, sent an answer as she gave a seconding speech for Copeland. "Years from now we will all look back at this day at this convention as an historic day, a day when Republicans said to Ruth Ann Minner, we have pride," she said.

The Republicans did not stop with endorsing candidates and electing new officers. They also rolled out a platform they called the "Delaware Plan," which telegraphed the centerpiece of their campaign -- going after the Minner administration and the Senate Democratic majority for financial failings and closed-door government.

Like the party restoration, the platform needs a little work. It was somewhat late with its proposal to give a line-item veto to the governor -- about 111 years too late. The executive has had that authority since 1897.

A party can be out of power so long, it can forget.