Posted: Aug. 27, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Who was not here was as noteworthy as who was here Saturday evening at the Sussex County Democratic Beach Jamboree, where the summer slides into the campaign season and the party's leading figures -- whether they are on the ballot or not -- come to give the call to arms.

Not U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., though. He was away in South Carolina, looking for the voters he will need in the state holding the second presidential primary before he needs the voters at home again.

Not Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, dwindling toward her last official jamboree in 2008. She was described vaguely as being on business in Maryland, even if it did sound like a euphemism for being in political semi-retirement in Delaware.

Not a candidate for auditor. Astonishingly, a party that has managed to take seven of the nine statewide offices has no one to run against R. Thomas Wagner Jr., a Republican who has been the auditor since 1989. The deadline for finding someone is Friday.

"We're working on it," said James F. Hussey Jr., the state vice chair.

Who was here, bursting to get a move on, was the entire complement of the Democratic futures club, the next-tier officeholders waiting to muscle into the governorship or the Congress, if ever Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper or U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the lone Republican in the delegation, get out of the way.

They were everywhere, testing for footing literally and politically in the sand dunes of Cape Henlopen State Park, the customary site for the jamboree, among 350 Democrats in attendance. With all the jostling among themselves, they have shouldered aside the Republicans, who do not have a single statewide officeholder under the age of 50.

There was Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., not on the ballot and looking relaxed, pithily distilling the essence of an event in a leadership role he seems to be assuming more and more. He predicted a good year for his party.

"Anybody remember James Brown? I feel good, like I knew I would," Carney camped with a hip waggle.

"Tonight at the Sussex County Democratic Beach Jamboree, this is where it starts, this is where the home stretch starts. This is going to be a good year to be a Democrat, because people are sick and tired of what they're getting from the Bush administration in Washington, D.C., and they're sick and tired of what they're seeing from the House Republicans in Dover."

There was state Treasurer Jack A. Markell, still not knowing whether the Republicans really were going to persuade Esthelda R. Parker-Selby, a retired educator from Sussex County, to run against him or else give him a free pass for a third term.

Markell already has campaigned in 29 of the 41 representative districts in a "Get to Know Jack" tour and taken a three-day bicycle trip from Claymont to Delmar. It could be regarded either as overkill for this election or as a head start on the next one, when he and Carney both would not mind having the nomination for governor. On this evening of unity, however, it went unmentioned.

Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn and New Castle County Executive Christopher A. Coons, a couple of other futures-club members not on the ballot, attended, too. So did Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son, running for attorney general with the expectation that a win would add him to the futures club, as well.

As usual, the Bidens treated the jamboree like a family reunion. Even without Joe, there were 11 of them from three generations, a tangle of brothers, sisters and cousins and Joe's wife Jill.

Beau Biden was thanked for not taking Joe's notoriously-long talking time as well as his own. (Actually, Joe's turn went mostly toward a baffling 20-minute stretch of raffling off a palette of soda a six-pack at a time, until the crowd rebelled and it just was given away at the end. The Democrats wanted to be winners, but not raffle ticket by raffle ticket.)

Beau Biden, locked in the showcase race of the season with Ferris W. Wharton, took on the Republican critics who dismiss him as a legacy candidate.

"As President Bill Clinton said, campaigns are about the future, not the past, and they're about the voters, not the candidates," Biden said. "The other side will probably talk a lot about me. I like that fight."

With Joe Biden away, the right to the last speech went to Tom Carper, who has put together 11 statewide victories as a treasurer, congressman, governor and senator and is looking for another one this year, almost certainly against Jan C. Ting, the endorsed candidate in a Republican senatorial primary.

The futures club could note that Carper has every intention of staying where he is -- even if his longevity has not necessarily brought him universal recognition. He observed that the Cape Henlopen park guard at the entrance had asked him whether he was from in-state or out-of-state.

Carper's only plan was for his own version of a futures club. "I'd like to be a junior senator for at least two more years -- until we can elect Joe Biden president," he said.

It was an evening for transitions, from the summer to the campaign, from the present to the future. Carney inadvertently made it clear. He had finished his speech when he had to ask to have the microphone back for something he forgot to say -- "Please give a round of applause for our governor, Ruth Ann Minner."

When the governor even while absent is an afterthought, there is no looking back.