Posted: Dec. 8, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Terry McAuliffe, the Democrats' national chairman, mingled Monday morning during an open house at his party's state headquarters near New Castle, his visit coming about a month and a half after the Delaware Republicans held a dinner with Edward W. Gillespie, their national chairman.

If there was any doubt that the 2004 presidential election is going to be as hard a fight as the last one, with Delaware in the thick of it, those tandem appearances should dispel it. When the two top party officials in the country pay attention to a state this size, it means they are doing the equivalent of digging for change in the sofa cushions.

"You are on our target map," McAuliffe told about 50 Democratic officeholders, party officials, volunteers and labor union members gathered at the headquarters in East Corporate Commons.

McAuliffe was so determined to squeeze electoral votes out of Delaware that he said he wanted four of them. That was a mistake. Delaware has only three electoral votes, the minimum for states with such small populations that they are entitled to only one member in the U.S. House of Representatives.

McAuliffe chalked up his overestimate to an error in his briefing book, but his listeners hardly minded. They laughed and seemed to wish he were right. "We'll take it," someone called out.

Delaware voted Democratic for Al Gore Jr. in 2000, landing in the column of the presidential candidate who carried the popular vote but not in the column of the candidate who went to the White House, the first time it missed since 1948. George W. Bush claimed the presidency for the Republicans after the Florida "long count" by collecting 271 electoral votes -- one more than a bare majority.

McAuliffe predicted the 2004 election could be that close again. "I think it could be one or two electoral votes' difference," he said.

So McAuliffe was here, part of a strategy for him to concentrate his efforts on 20 target states, those that gave Gore 45 percent to 55 percent of their vote. Gore won 55 percent in Delaware -- leading to the conclusion the state would be in play in 2004, as it generally has been as it hopscotched from winner to winner.

Although Delaware has been leaning Democratic of late, voting not only for Gore but for a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators, McAuliffe was not taking anything for granted. "You are a true swing state," he said.

McAuliffe's Delaware appearance was his second since he became chairman in 2001. He stopped here in February to fulfill a promise to visit all 50 states, but it was largely a private affair at the Wilmington Club for officeholders and party officials. State Democratic Chairman Richard H. Bayard said the format was reconsidered afterwards, producing this open house.

Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. introduced McAuliffe. State Treasurer Jack A. Markell also attended, as did Matthew P. Denn, the candidate for insurance commissioner. There also were  campaign officials or volunteers on hand for Joseph I. Lieberman, Wesley K. Clark and Howard B. Dean, three of the Democrats' nine presidential candidates, some of them chatting together quite amicably.

New Castle County Council President Christopher A. Coons, who is running for county executive, was in the crowd, but Sherry L. Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer who also plans to run, was not.

McAuliffe pitched hard for party unity once the Democrats settle on their nominee, whom he predicted would be in place by March 10. The selection begins with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27, followed by voting in seven other states, including Delaware, on Feb. 3.

"We need a nominee early. We need to be unified early," McAuliffe said. "We can't afford to have four more years of this president. . . . We're going to light up on March 11, and we're not going down until Nov. 2."

McAuliffe said the Democrats would focus on Bush's record on the economy and Iraq and steer clear of what are called "wedge issues" -- those that divide and inflame -- such as gun control, which he said was better left to the states.

"Guns, gays and God -- we're not going to let them do it to us," McAuliffe said. "We're not going to let them define us this time."

From Delaware, McAuliffe was off to Philadelphia and then Maine, more stops in targeted states, on his way to the University of New Hampshire in Durham for a Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday.

Before departing, McAuliffe acknowledged a special fondness for Delaware lingering from his youth -- something about Dewey Beach and a lot of Budweiser beer.