Posted: Aug. 26, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Democrats' annual Sussex County Beach Jamboree was the steamiest ever. The weather was really hot, too.

Amid the broiling sand dunes Saturday evening at the Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, the politics was blasting away in a split-screen show that made it confusing to know where to look.

There was Joe Biden, bringing his presidential campaign in a pilgrimage home, and there was a scrum of statewide candidates, propelling the party toward unsettling primaries next year for governor, lieutenant governor, Congress and insurance commissioner.

This was a jamboree with the emphasis on jam -- too many candidates for too few spots. It probably beat the alternative, a moribund party holding a jamboree with the emphasis on bore, but it brought the Delaware Democrats to the moment they dreaded.

This political gathering, with about 300 party members tucked as always on a spit of shoreline between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, was destined to be remembered as the point of no return for the gubernatorial rivalry of Lt. Gov. John Carney and Treasurer Jack Markell.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, who came oh-so-close to heading off the primary in the spring by negotiating for a Carney-Markell ticket, was the one to acknowledge the contest was here and to call for a race that would not leave the Democrats embittered and spent and the Republicans primed to wrest away the governorship, likely with Alan B. Levin of Happy Harry's fame, for the first time in 16 years.

It was the sort of peacemaking role that typically belongs to a governor, but there was no sighting of Gov. What's-Her-Name, so Carper, who used to be one, stepped up.

Carper brought Carney and Markell to stand beside him on the stage in the picnic pavilion where the jamboree was held. He said he still wished there would not be a primary, but he accepted that it was coming.

"They are perhaps two of the best political talents we have seen in this state in a generation or more," Carper said. "I love these guys, and I love the state. We've got too much going for us here to not come through this the way that's best for them, best for the party, best for the state."

This jamboree brought into focus the diverging approach that the two candidates are taking -- Markell embracing the unfolding primary as a way to steer his own course and Carney sticking with the governor in defiance of the Republican threat to make "Minner" his first name.

Markell went first. "I know some of you are nervous about the primary for governor next year, but I'm not. I'm excited. The Democratic Party has a choice between two good candidates, and that's a good thing," he said.

"Because Lord knows, whichever Democrat wins, we'll have some tough issues to deal with, and I'm not just talking about prison health care and the Delaware Psychiatric Center," Markell said, mentioning the economy, the schools and the rising cost of health care. "This is what democracy is all about. This is what our country is all about. We as a people benefit from dialogue and debate."

Then Carney staked his claim. "I'm here tonight to tell you that I'm ready. I'm ready to be the governor of the state," he said. "I've learned a few things about what it takes to be governor watching Tom and Ruth Ann. One of the most important things I've learned is the value of leadership."

While Carney and Markell had star billing, the other primaries were on display, too. It was carnival-like with tented booths set up outside the pavilion for the various candidates and a ripple of their backers in rival t-shirts flowing through the crowd.

Insurance Commissioner Matt Denn and Wilmington Council President Ted Blunt, both running for lieutenant governor, made the cut to appear on the program and give short speeches.

The remaining races had lower profiles. In the congressional field Dennis Spivack, the 2006 candidate who wants a rematch with U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, an eight-term Republican, was away on vacation but sponsored a booth, and the Rev. Chris Bullock, who also is thinking about running, was introduced briefly as an "outstanding spiritual leader." Karen Weldin Stewart and Gene Reed Jr., both with their sights on insurance commissioner, showed up to do some handshaking.

Then there was Joe. The senator and the jamboree forever are inseparable. He cemented their association almost 20 years ago when he chose the event for his first public appearance after recovering from the brain aneurysms that nearly killed him, and more than a thousand people crammed in to see him at the most dramatic one ever.

It meant nobody really was surprised that Biden would skip a precious weekend in Iowa, where the presidential voting will begin in a matter of months, for Sussex County. He fit in without being mobbed, but he was a presence. Being accompanied by his son-the-attorney-general made it even more pronounced.

Biden had a table with copies of Promises to Keep, his new book, to sign, and people lined up nearly as fast, although not as many, as they did for dinner -- which is saying something, because the food was a fried chicken buffet from Jimmy's Grille, the Bridgeville catering concern that is the pride of Sussex County.

As usual, Biden closed out the speeches. By the time he talked, the night had pushed in. There were no lights. He came off the stage to stand among the long picnic tables, where someone sitting at the first one carved a little pocket out of the darkness with a pinpoint flashlight illuminating Biden's face like something out of a painting by Rembrandt. Camera flashes lit him, too.

Biden told the people what they came to hear. He had their loyalty for his presidential campaign, and he gave them a reason for it. No one can predict it could happen, but it could happen.

"I don't believe this is a fool's errand. I'm not doing this for the exercise," Biden said.

"Ladies and gentlemen, look at the polling data. Only eight percent of the registered Democrats in America have made up their mind. Nobody has decided yet. If we do our job, I promise you, you will not be embarrassed. I promise you, I've got as much of a chance of winning this nomination as anyone, including Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama."

As Biden ended, he drew together the two competing tugs of the jamboree. If he moved up, he teased, maybe the primary for governor could sort itself out.

"I've never seen so much talent in the Democratic Party, ready to lead the state. If I get the nomination, who knows, it may settle the governor's race," he quipped.

"Tommy and I often kid, riding on the train late at night, when it's really late, after midnight, and we get a chance to talk. Tom and I are sort of a bottleneck for you all. Maybe we'll try to change that."