Posted: Sept. 5, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Moderation in the pursuit of office is no vice for U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle.

In an election year when herds of Republicans are high-tailing away from their president, Castle is distancing himself only moderately. "If he comes in [to campaign in Delaware,] that's fine. I don't think the president is coming in. I'll stay with the John McCains of the world," he said.

In a state accustomed to watching its candidates declare for office with rallies as muscular as they can muster in all three counties, Castle moderated the custom by holding a series of muted press conferences Tuesday in Lewes in Sussex County, Dover in Kent County and Wilmington in New Castle County.

In a national climate of political polarization, Castle clings proudly to the center. "I'm willing to work on a bipartisan basis. I'll negotiate with anybody, even those who oppose me," he said.

The moderate approach has led to extreme victory. Castle remains the last Republican of stature still standing in a state that increasingly seems to like its politics Democratic -- with Democratic senators, a Democratic governor and seven of the nine statewide officeholders Democrats. He keeps winning elections that are not even close.

"Mike is really where Delaware is. He's a moderate. He's not an extremist on anything. Only the very conservative and the very liberal don't like him," said James R. Soles, a political science professor retired from the University of Delaware.

"There are many Democrats who are going to vote for Mike Castle, and some of the Democrats who are going to vote for his opponent wouldn't, if they thought Mike Castle had any chance of losing."

Castle, 67, of Wilmington, is in his seventh term as the state's lone congressman, the longest tenure of any Delawarean in the U.S. House of Representatives. With his previous experience as a one-term lieutenant governor and two-term governor, he has been around long enough to enter that rarefied political air where he is less about identifying himself with issues and more about having issues identified with him -- the way Bill Roth became tax cuts and IRAs.

Castle's signature issue is embryonic stem cell research. It is regarded as potentially a medical breakthrough for Alzheimer's, diabetes, cancer, Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries and other afflictions that are among the worst known to humankind, even as its critics contend that embryos are life and off-limits for scientific experimentation.

Whatever happens with the technology, stem cell research already is regarded as a political breakthrough for Castle, making him a presence not just in Delaware but around the country. When his legislation became President George W. Bush's only veto, Castle quipped that it had given him a new line in his obituary -- not to mention the political cover it offered as evidence of his independence from the White House.

As a sitting congressman, Castle has had the luxury of keeping himself in the public eye with popular projects like a recreational area along the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal while postponing his entry into the Punch-and-Judy of campaigning until after Labor Day. He still has the luxury of another week to delay tangling with a Democratic opponent while waiting for someone to emerge definitively from the primary election on Tuesday.

It is virtually certain to be Dennis Spivack, the endorsed candidate who barely has gotten as much as a political hotfoot from Karen M. Hartley-Nagle, a nominal Democrat also filed on the ticket of  the Independent Party of Delaware, so she will be around until Election Day on Nov. 7, no matter what.

Spivack is a loud Democrat who accuses Castle of masquerading as a moderate while actually being a "rubber-stamper" and "enabler" for the president and other Republican conservatives.

Spivack's problem, however, is that he has little money to put where his mouth is. He had $37,000 cash on hand, even after he personally loaned $116,000 to his campaign, according to his federal finance report of Aug. 23, while Castle was sitting on $1.4 million. In politics, what a candidate has in dollars counts more than incense.

Castle and Spivack are hardly strangers. Before Castle got into statewide politics, he was a partner in the law firm of Schnee & Castle, and Spivack was a lawyer there. Spivack is the third statewide candidate to come out of the practice, following Castle and Carl Schnee, who was the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2002.

It does raise the question of what was in the water at Schnee & Castle. Whatever was there, it must have run hot and cold for Spivack -- unlike for Castle, who found it moderately just right.