Posted: Sept. 7, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Beau Biden was not dressed in short pants, and Ferris W. Wharton did not try too hard to put him in them during the first candidates forum in the election for attorney general.

So much for the stereotypes of this campaign. Almost by virtue of showing up, Biden did not come across as an out-of-his-depth legacy candidate, and a congenial Wharton left the dismissive attack that has been the hallmark of his campaign -- "Beau Biden's ambition is no substitute for my accomplishments" -- to be seen on his Web site and not heard.

The atmosphere was nearly festive as Biden and Wharton met Wednesday evening at a mixer in Lewes for the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, the Lewes chamber and the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach chamber, the business leaders celebrating the coup of being the first to snag the candidates in the showcase race of 2006.

The encounter was frictionless, even tepid, as the initial exchanges in a campaign so often are. Sometimes it was even boring, as though both of the candidates were laboring to win a high school civics contest for the best paper on what the Attorney General's Office does.

The event had a throwback sense to it, a neighborly mingling of about 80 people beneath a white tent on the grounds of the Inn at Canal Square, where everyone knew the candidates at least by reputation, but more likely personally -- Wharton, the prosecutor who helped to put away Tom Capano, and Biden, who was, well, he was a Biden, although the crowd may not have been entirely up to date. A murmur went through it when he was described as a captain in the National Guard.

The candidates even brought family. Wharton had his mother Mildred, who lives in Lewes. There was a typical tangle of four generations of Bidens, including Beau Biden's grandmother, not his father who had a Senate session but his wife Jill, his own wife and his brother's and a collection of their children.

This is Delaware. When Biden said something about being relieved that his baby son was not crying, one listener remembered going to a campaign event in 1972 when Joe Biden had a crying toddler and it was Beau.

Each candidate had a half-hour to speak, and Biden went first, which was just as well, because the thrust of Wharton's campaign, similar to a familiar show tune, is anything-you-think-you-can-do-I've-already-done-better.

They laid out their backgrounds -- Biden, a 37-year-old Democrat from Wilmington, a former federal prosecutor in Philadelphia and now a partner in a 20-lawyer firm based in Wilmington, and Wharton, a 53-year-old Republican from Wilmington, a career prosecutor who has been the chief deputy attorney general and an assistant U.S. attorney.

Biden led with an opening line from his new radio spot that says Delaware has the ninth-worst violent crime rate in the nation -- "That's not a Top 10 list I think we should be on."

He explained that he wanted to revamp the Justice Department, proposing a community prosecution program that would put prosecutors in neighborhoods the way community policing does, promising to create a child predator unit to deal with sexual solicitation on the Internet, and putting additional focus on identity theft, elder abuse and domestic violence.

"If you want business as usual at the Department of Justice, I'm not your guy. The Delaware Department of Justice has become, I believe, a reactive agency," Biden said -- something of a knock at Wharton, a lifer with 23 years there.

One man's knock can be another's badge of honor, and Wharton pinned it on when his turn came.

"I'm a prosecutor," he said. "That's what I am. I'm not a politician. I believe in the mission of the Attorney General's Office. I've lived that life. That's been my professional life. I don't want to be anything but attorney general."

Wharton waved away Biden's ideas -- "a vision is really nothing more than a mirage" -- and promised to stick to prosecuting criminals, already enough of a challenge because the department is understaffed. "I don't have to go into the Attorney General's Office and decide whether we need more prosecutors," he said. "We can't even perform the core function."

That was as frisky as it got. Neither candidate afterwards even tried to claim he had run away with the night.

"It's kind of a classic Delaware forum. I'm happy that folks got to see both of our ideas on how to make Delaware's families safer," Biden said.

"I would like a little more interaction between the two of us. He said a lot of things I've been saying," Wharton said.

The crowd reaction was mild, too.

"I think the idea of community prosecution is long overdue," said Timothy G. Willard, a Georgetown lawyer who spent 10 years as a deputy attorney general and also was the Sussex County Democratic chair.

"I think they both did very well, pretty even-steven. They're different personalities and backgrounds. It will be a tough vote," said Richard C. Cecil, a former New Castle County Republican councilman who now lives in Lewes.

Afterwards, Jill Biden chatted amiably with Mildred Wharton. As the election gets closer and the debate inevitably gets frostier, there may be stiffness between the families, but it is too early yet, and anyway, this is Delaware.