Posted: Aug. 1, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Howard Dean was not too popular here when he was running for president in 2004, but two years later he is the Delaware Democrats' friend.

The difference? A hundred thousand dollars.

Dean came in a forgettable fourth in the presidential primary in a state that had heard him scream and knew a bandwagon for John F. Kerry when it saw one, but the reception was more welcoming when Dean arrived Tuesday afternoon in Wilmington.

Now he is the Democratic Party's national chair and the architect of a plan called the "50 State Strategy." It funnels money to Democratic state organizations by paying for staff members, and in Delaware's case, it meant providing about $100,000 to add three workers -- a communications director and two field operatives -- to a headquarters that had been getting along with two.

Money can buy love in politics, and so the state Democrats showed him some when Dean, a former doctor who also was Vermont's governor, made his house call. At least, the ones who turned out for him did.

Most of the decent-sized crowd of 120 or so party members attending the gathering in the Residences at Rodney Square were Deaniacs, the faithful whom Dean liked to call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, a progressive bloc that even the Democratic establishment here sometimes regards as the loony left.

They gave Dean rock-star treatment -- from the fervent applause and scattered cheers when he arrived to the swarm they formed around him to shake his hand and snap his picture as he prepared to leave. Finally! Their moment had come to have one of their heroes in Delaware, and not even a sweltering heat wave was going to keep them from it.

"Thank you. My goodness," Dean said, clearly surprised by the intensity of the reaction when he was introduced.

For whatever reason, though, a lot of Democrats skipped this event. Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., recruited by the party leadership to be the master of ceremonies, was the only statewide officeholder in sight. Legislators stayed away in droves, except for state Sen. Harris B. McDowell III, the Senate majority leader who is from Wilmington, and state Sen. Karen E. Peterson, who endorsed Dean for president.

There certainly were no sightings of the below-the-canal conservative Democrats who hold sway in the state Senate -- no Thurman G. Adams Jr., who runs the chamber as the president pro tem, no Robert L. Venables Sr., who chairs the Bond Bill Committee, no James T. Vaughn Sr., who chairs the Judiciary Committee, where liberal bills go to die.

Dean's visit attracted a number of candidates based in New Castle County -- like Dennis Spivack, who is running against U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, and Patricia Morrison, who is taking on state Sen. Catherine A. Cloutier in Brandywine Hundred -- but not one of the downstate Democratic challengers  from Kent County or Sussex County, where the politics tends to be more Republican red than Democratic blue and Dean does not play.  

"You saw a very strong showing of former supporters of his," Carney said.

Dean proved to be a more compelling speaker than he has a reputation for. As Carney put it, "The problem is everybody's got that one flash perception of him. He's otherwise a very thoughtful guy."

Dean acknowledged the lay of the political land here -- a state that is voting increasingly Democratic because of the leanings of New Castle County, where nearly two-thirds of the electorate is -- and urged the party not to settle for upstate votes only.

"If you don't fight everywhere, you can't expect to win," he said. "We're going to be in all 50 states, but you need to be in all three counties."

Dean also gave a nod to Delaware's best-known Democrat. "Sen. Biden's going to win again in 2008, if he's not busy doing something else," he said coyly. (Dean could afford to be generous. Asked in a one-question interview in the midst of the swarm after his speech whether he would run for president again, he said, "Not this time.")

Dean laid out his party's six-point agenda for the 2006 election and the reason for it -- "This is a war against the middle class the Republicans have, and we aim to reverse it" -- as he proposed:

Honest and open government. A strong national defense that rests on telling the truth. American jobs that stay in America. A health care system for everyone. A public education system offering opportunity and optimism. The end of corporations taking away people's pensions in bankruptcy court.

True to form, the Delaware Republicans staged a sideshow, putting a furry donkey costume on someone obviously even madder than a dog or an Englishman to endure it in the afternoon sun and entreating passers-by to play "Pin the Quote on the Donkey."

The idea was to identify whether Howard Dean or Joe Biden had said something, such as: "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" (Dean) or "The next Republican that tells me I'm not religious, I'm going to shove my rosary beads down their throat" (Biden.)

The Republicans can play away. It is a safe bet the Democrats will drum up more votes with those three new staff members courtesy of Dean than the Republicans will with their donkey game.