Posted: Dec. 2, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper endorsed fellow Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman for president about as fast as you can say, "Joe Biden in '08."

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle had a no-brainer of a choice. As the leading Republican in Delaware, he not only was committed to President George W. Bush's re-election effort but was tapped to be the chairman of the campaign's local operation.

Among the state's four most prominent officeholders, it has left the Democratic twosome of U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner playing harder to get.

With two months to go before Delaware's presidential primary on Feb. 3, Biden and Minner still are staying mum -- as they have since Biden declared his non-candidacy in August, putting the state up for grabs on the Democratic side to the nine candidates in the field.

Maybe Biden thinks the best guy is sitting this one out. Maybe Minner sees no percentage in getting in. Who knows? They are as silent about their reasons as they are about their preferences. Nor are they giving any clues whether they intend to endorse.

"No time soon," said Margaret Aitken, the senator's press secretary.

"The governor doesn't know whether she will make an endorsement before the primary," said Gregory B. Patterson, the communications director for Minner.

For now, the biggest beneficiary of this state of affairs appears to be Lieberman, the Connecticut senator who was the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2000. Capitalizing on Carper's backing, Lieberman was the first to staff the state -- with an ex-aide to Carper -- and popped up here, as has his wife Hadassah.

In fact, Lieberman has scheduled his fourth appearance on Dec. 19, when he will be in Wilmington at the University of Delaware's Goodstay Center for a breakfast fund-raiser, hosted by Carper, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., State Treasurer Jack A. Markell and former Attorney General Charles M. Oberly III.

A simple strategy of visibility has worked here before. In 1996, the first time Delaware held a presidential primary instead of Iowa-style caucuses, it meant victory for Steve Forbes on a six-candidate ballot for the Republican nomination, eventually claimed by Robert J. Dole.

"Delaware is one of those states where sometimes you get credit for showing up," Carper said.

Beyond Lieberman, other Democratic candidates have less of a presence -- or none. The Rev. Alfred C. "Al" Sharpton has visited twice. U.S. Sen. John R. Edwards of North Carolina held a private fund-raiser. Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark set up a campaign operation last month but has not arrived himself. Former Vermont Gov. Howard B. Dean has a band of volunteers yet to establish much of a profile.

Endorsements from Biden and Minner could change the political calculus, so naturally there is a guessing game about which candidates they favor.

Biden has said he is leaning toward either Clark or U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, but it has not escaped notice that Valerie Biden Owens, the senator's sister who runs his campaigns, is an executive vice president with Joe Slade White & Co., a political firm contracted to handle media advertising for Clark.

Minner brought in Lieberman a year ago as the draw for a fund-raiser, where they traded compliments and "only-in-America" stories, she as the first woman elected governor here and he as the first Jewish-American on a national ticket.

Still, Carper clearly has the Lieberman franchise in Delaware, and Minner also has a political connection with U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt through Steve Murphy, who is both the campaign manager for the Missouri congressman's presidential campaign and a political consultant for Minner. Nor can it hurt that Murphy is a 1972 University of Delaware graduate originally from Milford, also Minner's home town.

If Biden and Minner do endorse, one thing appears certain. Their candidate had better show. Delaware's Republican establishment stumbled in 1996 when it largely embraced Bob Dole, who did not come in, and the electorate went with Forbes.

"The threshold question is, will the candidate come to Delaware and actually campaign?" said Michael Ratchford, a former Republican secretary of state and ex-chief of staff to Castle, who had the instinct to endorse no one in 1996.

There is also another serious consideration. "You endorse because it's somebody you really want to see be president," said Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, a former Democratic national committeeman from Delaware and a longtime adviser to Biden.

That motivation appears to be driving Carper's endorsement for Lieberman. "I just think he'd be a terrific president," Carper said. "I like the fact he's positioned in the center, and I think if we're going to win in November, we need a centrist."

Just as Carper's decision to endorse sets him apart from Biden and Minner, it distinguishes him from almost all of his fellow Democratic senators. Except for those who are backing home state colleagues, Carper is one of only three to state a preference, according to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California endorsed Kerry, and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana endorsed Clark.

Carper called it common sense to make his call early, because of the compactness of the primary calendar. Iowa opens with its caucuses on Jan. 19, followed by New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 27 and then a cascade of states, including Delaware.

"The candidate selection process is front-end loaded. For those who wait until February or March, they may be coming in after the fact," Carper said.

For now, Carper stands alone on the bully pulpit accorded to officeholders like him and Castle, Biden and Minner, but you never know.

"Biden and Minner have both been around," said Robert L. Byrd, a lobbyist and former Democratic legislator who is a key member of Minner's kitchen Cabinet. "They're waiting to make the right move, and they haven't seen the right time to make a move."