Posted: Sept. 9, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There was a tough choice to be made Saturday morning for anyone along the Wilmington Riverfront.

Put on a cowboy hat and big belt buckle to to go to the "Hotrod Hoedown & Flea Market," or spin around on the carnival rides at "El Festival Hispano de Wilmington," or listen to U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper declare his candidacy for the 12th time?

About 200 people actually chose Carper, and most of them were not even on his payroll.

A significant number of them were his fellow Democratic officeholders or candidates, almost certainly there in search of the political magic that has given Carper the record for the most statewide victories in Delaware history as a three-term treasurer, five-term congressman, two-term governor and first-term senator, dating back for 30 years.

It was everyone from Mayor James M. Baker, New Castle County Executive Christopher A. Coons, and Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn to the 2006 Democratic ticket of Treasurer Jack A. Markell, Dennis Spivack for the Congress and Beau Biden for attorney general -- but not Michael J. Dalto, the mystery man drafted at the deadline for auditor. Plenty of legislative and other local candidates were there, too.

They gathered at the river -- Carper always did like biblical references, down to the Bible on the desk in his official gubernatorial portrait -- for the New Castle County stop on the traditional three-county announcement tour, which also included appearances in Kent County in Dover and Sussex County in Rehoboth Beach.

The Wilmington Riverfront along the Christina was meant to represent a tangible accomplishment, a rundown wasteland until a revival began while Carper was governor, now fit for hotrods and carnival fare. The announcement site was decorated gaily with U.S. and Delaware flags, and Carper spoke in front of a huge crane outfitted with a campaign sign: "Tom Carper, Leadership That Works, Senate 2006."

The crane was blue and yellow, close to Delaware colors, and the campaign sign was red, white and blue, as in three-cheers-for. Let a thousand patriot hearts bloom.

As the crowd gently steamed in the September sun, Carper spoke for half an hour, long enough to pass most campaign stump speeches and creep toward those State of the State addresses he used to give or perhaps the State of . . . something else.

It is always worth remembering how competitive Carper is and how his humor almost always has a purpose, and how there was that time about a year ago when he teased the Wilmington Manor Fire Company's vice president -- "Vice President. That's the job I'm interested in. There's a lot less competition."

While the Republicans plow grimly toward a three-way primary on Tuesday to settle on a Senate candidate, Carper paid no mind to the issues uppermost for Jan C. Ting, the Republicans' endorsed candidate, who is running on a hard-line immigration policy, tax cuts and criticism of Carper as the governor who signed legislation leading to rising electric rates.

It was the speech of someone whose winning streak at the polls is regarded as unstoppable. Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, calls Carper "as safe as can be." It does not hurt that Carper had $2.5 million in his campaign account as of Aug. 23, while Ting, the flushest of the Republicans, had $53,000.

Carper catalogued some of his senatorial efforts, such as his participation in the all-state-press to save the Delaware Air National Guard from crippling cutbacks. "I've asked them for a flyby this morning. We'll see how appreciative they are," he quipped.

Carper drew the most applause for challenging the foreign policy of the Bush administration, especially for its prosecution of the Iraq war -- which he had voted to authorize in 2002.

"The road map to peace in the Middle East has become a road map to war. The Taliban has re-emerged in Afghanistan, Iraq may be slipping into civil war, and Osama bin Laden still remains at large. North Korea continues to build its nuclear arsenal. Iran appears hell bent to start one of its own," he said.

"Instead of finishing the job we had begun in Afghanistan and focusing like a laser on resolving once and for all the age-old dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, this administration -- relying on bogus intelligence -- decided to invade and occupy an Arab country in the heart of the Middle East. . . .

"If members of Congress and the public had known that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction . . . that there was no sponsorship or other strategic relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and that Iraq had no capacity to threaten people in the United States, neither Congress nor the public would have approved of a decision to go to war.

"We cannot afford to stay indefinitely in Iraq, but neither can we afford to fail in Iraq. . . .

"For the past six years, our Republican friends have had their chance to lead this country. They have squandered that opportunity. The president says that we need to stay the course. I disagree. It's time to change the course. Together, America can do better than this. Not so long ago, we did."

It all made sense to Mayor Baker. "It's a great speech. He talked about the potential of America. Instead of exporting freedom, making sure freedom works here. You can't have all these wars going on. We should hand off a better country to our children, as every generation has done, and right now it doesn't look like we'll do that," he said.

Carper made only one slip in his speech. In his text, he was supposed to say he wanted to talk about what he has achieved for Delaware as a senator over the past six years, but what he said was "four years."

It was as if he was thinking about still being governor or . . . something else.