Posted: Sept. 8, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Never have so many people been so uncomfortable eating and drinking on a splendid evening in Rehoboth Beach -- and for free.

The event was Mike Castle's. The nine-term Republican congressman hosted about 300 people at his customary summer reception Saturday at Kings Creek Country Club, a setting so satisfying that Sherwood Boehlert, an ex-congressman who was in attendance, left his own district in central New York with the Finger Lakes and the baseball Hall of Fame to retire here.

People were fidgety. They arrived wondering whether this would be the moment for Castle to announce his closing political act, either to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010 or to retire from nearly 40 years of public life as a state legislator, lieutenant governor, governor and member of Congress.

"I've got two people who want me to call them when I get in the car," said Debbie Hudson, a Republican state representative.

Castle was aware of the suspense, but never mind. He channeled Hamlet, anyway.

"I'm not 100 percent sure what it is I'm going to be doing," he told the crowd. "We'll have an announcement soon, hopefully by the end of September."

Castle has been promising a decision since the spring. It does not seem like a sign that he is running for him to waver for so long.

It seems like even less of one for him to hold an event for the Republican country club set, a classic money-maker, but invite everyone to come for free in a departure from his usual practice of collecting campaign contributions. It should be remembered that candidates with no cash turn into Lehman Brothers.

"You may rest assured that if I decide to run for the United States Senate, you'll hear from me again," Castle said.

The timing was so right for at least a wink and a nod. The Republicans were desperate for it. Without Castle, they have an abyss -- no one certain in 2010 for the Senate, for Castle's seat in the House of Representatives, for attorney general or for treasurer, only Tom Wagner running for re-election for auditor. Castle and Wagner are the only Republicans left in nine statewide offices.

"He's running," said Tom Ross, the Republican state chair. He sounded like a man who has worn out his thumbs texting the old typing drill to Castle, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party, now is the time . . .

Ross & Co. were clinging for hope to Castle's energetic schedule, a Delaware blitz they could constitute as a living counter-argument to political retirement.

The congressman who stood up to the birthers and singlehandedly kicked off Town Hall Hell on YouTube fearlessly conducted more health care sessions. He cycled in a bike-to-work ride. He pitched in for a book drive and a food bank.

He marched in the Labor Day parade in Wilmington, where he was one lonely Republican. There would have been less isolation if he had the swine flu.

In recent days Castle also stopped by the Crab Feast & Watermelon Extravaganza, sponsored by Vance Phillips, a Republican who is the Sussex County Council president. This was an experience memorable enough to mention to the crowd.

Castle said he left there with two watermelons, one that was a problem. How a watermelon could be a problem, he did not say. Leave it to Castle to be troubled by a watermelon. (Asked about it later, he said there was a hole in it. Juice all over the place after he got it home.)

Castle's reception had one of those pairings that can happen only in Delaware.

Ruth Briggs King, the Republican in a special election for state representative, was a guest, and so was Battle Robinson, whose son Rob Robinson is the Democratic candidate. A retired Family Court judge, Battle Robinson was renewing her Republican credentials, stamped in earnest in 1984 when Castle was elected governor but she lost out as his lieutenant governor by 429 votes.

Castle publicly acknowledged the attendance of both.

Castle had his 70th birthday in July. It is in his Republican DNA to know that anyone, no matter how beloved or revered, can run one race too many.

It is the reason the state's two Senate seats belong to the Democrats. Cale Boggs, who was a congressman and governor before he was a senator, was talked out of retiring and Joe Biden got him. Bill Roth, a sturdy five-term senator, fell to Tom Carper.

There is also the word of John Williams, a Republican senator, who counseled that officeholders should not run if the new term takes them beyond their 70th birthday. He took his own advice and departed after four terms. Castle has already hedged on that one.

"I listened to John Williams. I watched Bill Roth. I don't want to go on indefinitely. It's undecided. I do not know," Castle said in a brief interview at his reception.

"I can literally argue either side of it. I'll always wonder."

The September deadline for a decision really could be firm, because Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general, is due back from his National Guard tour in Iraq at the end of the month.

The Democrats appear confident that Biden will be their candidate for the seat his father left for the vice presidency, no matter if the Republicans like to believe that Biden would give way to Castle.

"Both sides have done their polling. Beau's going to come home and be a good attorney general, unless there's an opening that cries out for him," said Bill Lee, the retired judge who was the Republican nominee for governor twice. Lee is also a rare Republican who likes Biden from their time in the same law firm.

The countdown is on for Castle, and so is the pressure.

"It's virtually in the interest of everybody in Delaware that he run for the Senate -- except his own," said Glenn Kenton, a lawyer who was the secretary of state for Republican Gov. Pete du Pont from 1977 to 1985.

It certainly is in the Republicans' interest. They are already the incredibly shrinking party. Look no further than their annual gathering at Vicmead Hunt Club, a premier fund-raiser conceived with their Chateau Country contributors in mind.

Vicmead once was billed as a "Salute to Pete du Pont and Bill Roth," then to Roth and Castle, and now just to Castle. He is all that stands between his party and a "Salute to Tom Wagner."