Posted: Sept. 19, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

From a bumper sticker on a car at Dover Downs, it was obvious which political party was gathered inside Monday evening -- "I love my country. It's the government I'm afraid of."

All right, it could have been the Libertarians, but there were too many cars in the parking lot for them. The Delaware Democrats were hosting their annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in the Rollins Center ballroom, appropriately enough, because they were having a ball.

A week after the primary when the Republicans failed to deliver for three of their six endorsed candidates and barely rescued Jan C. Ting for the race against U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Democrats were displaying confidence that they would continue their growing mastery of a state they have all but owned in this unfolding new century.

When Dover Downs is full on race weekends, it is the largest "city" in Delaware. The Democrats were not in that league, but the thousand or so of them who turned out were enough to outrank about half of the state's towns -- making them about equal to the population of Bethany Beach.

"You believe this? We ran a good primary, we're having a good night tonight, and we're going to run good in November. This is something. Business and union," said Samuel E. Lathem, the Delaware AFL-CIO president who co-chaired the event committee.

The place was loud and loose with bursts of rock music. U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. was saluted with Bruce Springsteen's chorus, Baby, we were born to run.

The two prime candidates for governor in 2008 -- Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell -- roamed the room, and so did at least four potential contestants for lieutenant governor, namely, Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn, Secretary of State Harriet Smith Windsor, Wilmington Council President Theodore Blunt and state Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf.

As one politician quipped, the mood was so upbeat that even people who despised each other were smiling and shaking hands.

The Democrats were a party clearly feeling comfortable with itself, secure it would re-elect Carper and Markell, its two statewide incumbents up for re-election, keep control of the state Senate, and still have energy to spare for other priorities.

The party was focused additionally on making Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III the attorney general over Republican Ferris W. Wharton and pushing for "Six in '06," the six seats it needs for a majority in the state House of Representatives, a Republican stronghold for more than two decades.

Beau Biden, the senator's son, probably received more applause than anybody -- except perhaps for Tina Betz, who is Wilmington's cultural affairs director and wowed everyone by singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" with a voice like the virgin Liberty Bell. She made freedom ring.

In a sign of how well the party thinks Beau Biden is faring, the whispers of warning for Wharton were beginning. The whispers said that Wharton, a former state and federal prosecutor, was a fine attorney whose future would rest on whether he crossed the line in criticizing his opponent.

As Matt Denn put it more lightheartedly in his remarks, "We've got a state Republican Party that has alienated even its own members with attacks. If anybody is going to make fun of Beau Biden, it's going to be me."

The state House is so much of a goal that even Joe Biden, whose outlook typically is more national and international than local, mentioned it. He told the Democrats, "The thing that we need to do, because we have such a strong statewide ticket, is to take back the House of Representatives."

Not everything went smoothly for the Democrats at their dinner. Half of the speeches were muffled by a mushy sound system, although it miraculously was fixed before -- surprise! -- Beau Biden spoke.

In a test of egos, the Democrats hold so many of the key offices that they could not afford speaking time for all of those officeholders, not unless the program was going to last hours and hours. It went two, as it was.

Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker only had stage time by giving the invocation, New Castle County Executive Christopher A. Coons by leading the Pledge of Allegiance. Carper and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner got their remarks in by competing with the clang of silverware during the meal.

The party also made speaking room for both Bidens, Carney, Markell, Denn and Dennis Spivack, the congressional candidate against U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, but Michael J. Dalto, the throw-in at the filing deadline against state Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr., did not make the cut.

In addition, there was time for a keynote speech by U.S. Sen. Kenneth Salazar, a Colorado Democrat. It was unclear why, although he did happen to be an attorney general who was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Beau Biden called him "truly a model." Coincidence . . . or not?

The theme of the evening was that the future belonged to the Democrats.

Joe Biden tantalized them with the promise they they were on the verge of doing to the Republicans what Ronald Reagan had done to them for a generation, with the exception of the interlude with Bill Clinton, whom Biden called "a brilliant leader who knew how to triangulate."

Biden, his presidential aspirations showing, told them, "There are certain elections in the time of my life in the Democratic Party where one party doesn't just win but regains control for a decade or more. The American people have closed the book on the Republican Party. . . .

"We are on the verge of being the voice of this country for the next several decades."

There were similar thoughts on the state level from Edward J. Freel, the secretary of state in the 1990s when Carper was governor. An influential party strategist who broke into politics in 1970, Freel was presented with the Alexis I. du Pont Bayard Award, the Democrats' highest honor.

He noted that the first string of Joe Biden, Carper and Minner created a bench of Carney, Markell, Denn and Beau Biden, who in turn were bringing along a farm team.

"My wish for the Democratic Party," Freel said, "is to stay forever young."