Posted: July 16, 2004


What if?

Delaware politicians are playing their very favorite parlor game these days. It is a sort of mental round of dominos in which they ask one another, "What if?"

In this case, the question is, "What if Joe Biden becomes the secretary of state?"

U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. did a lot to touch off these political gymnastics back in March. He mused aloud to some Delaware bankers, wondering what would happen if John F. Kerry were to be elected president and turned to Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for the most prestigious post in his Cabinet.

If Biden's seat, which he first won six Senate elections ago in 1972, were to become vacant, it would be a sight that state politicians would regard as no less spectacular an opening than Moses parting the Red Sea, with all that milk and honey on the other side.

A Senate seat is so rarely available in Delaware -- only six men have had one in the last 50 years -- that there are probably county clerks of the peace dreaming of a way they could have a shot at Biden's.

Biden himself offered up two names for the senatorial sweepstakes. It was a no-brainer on the Republican side with U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, one of the superstars of state politics. It was all-heart on the Democratic side with his own son Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, a Wilmington lawyer already regarded as a likely candidate for attorney general in 2006.

Senate vacancies are filled in two steps. The governor appoints someone to serve until the next election, in this case 2006. Then an election is held. (This would create the odd occurrence of two Senate races in the same year, because U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the first-term Democrat, is up for re-election in 2006.)

Biden's seat would come up for election again in 2008, the end of the six-year term to which he was elected in 2002. The winner in 2008 would serve a six-year term, returning the seat to the Senate's normal schedule of staggered elections with roughly a third of its 100 members up every two years.

It is all nearly as confusing as a Florida presidential ballot, as ripe with possibilities as hanging chad allows. No wonder it has led to such as lively game of "What if?"

Generally it is conceded that the senatorial appointment belongs to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, either because she has been re-elected or because Biden would resign in time to guarantee that a governor of his own party would name his replacement.

What would Minner do? Would she appoint a caretaker who would step aside after keeping the seat warm for two years, or would she try to anoint a leader for the Democrats' next generation by choosing Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., Treasurer Jack A. Markell or Beau Biden?

Would Minner figure that Castle, running for the Senate seat in 2006, could slaughter whomever she appointed, so that in defiance of conventional wisdom and no doubt the screaming protest of the national Democratic Party, she might as well put him in now? There is, after all, a great deal of freedom that comes with being a term-limited governor if she wins or a lame-duck governor if she loses.

Surprisingly, as far as Delaware politics goes, it makes more sense than not to appoint Castle, because it might be the Democrats' best chance for taking back the House seat that Castle has held since 1992.

Vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives are filled not by appointment, but within weeks by special election. The Democrats have more potential candidates ready to go -- Markell, for example, was sitting on a campaign treasury of almost $200,000 at the end of 2003 -- while the Republicans are making their first serious efforts to build a bench with this election season.

It would be a lot easier to launch someone like Markell than, say, state Sen. Charles L. Copeland, regarded as one of the Republicans of the future. He may be a du Pont, but his campaign experience amounts to one Chateau Country election two years ago.

The Republicans might be able to go to Colm F. Connolly, the U.S. attorney already famed enough for murder movies and now working on corruption-busting tales. As an appointee of the Bush administration, he would bring this runaway political yarn full circle.

If Joe Biden is the secretary of state, then Colm Connolly is looking for work.

Hillary was here

Whatever happens to Biden, there is no question he can play in high-stakes politics. He showed off again Monday when he brought Hillary Rodham Clinton to Wilmington to speak to some political supporters. No press was allowed.

Clinton, the Democratic senator from New York and former first lady, appeared at a session of the Biden Seminars, which generally are held twice a year for subscribers who pay $125 a year to hobnob and hear national figures.

Clinton was said to be one of Biden's biggest draws ever, pulling in a crowd of about 675 people, according to Democrats who were there.

Clinton, accompanied by Secret Service agents, joined Biden for dinner at Harry's Seafood Grill at the Wilmington Riverfront before going to the seminar at the Bank One Center.

Someone in the audience took a look at Biden and Clinton and declared them the dream presidential ticket. Whoever the speaker was, he had the good sense not to say who was who.