Posted: Dec. 19, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Joseph I. Lieberman got it. Of the Democratic presidential candidates courting Delaware, he was the one who realized that this little state, regardless of political party, was in mourning because of the death of former U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr.

Lieberman, a Connecticut senator first elected in 1988, served two terms with Roth, a Republican who died last Saturday at the age of 82. Lieberman had sent condolences the next day as the news spread, calling Roth "a titan of Delaware politics."

Strangely, the other two candidates working to build bases here -- former General Wesley K. Clark and former Vermont Gov. Howard B. Dean -- were silent, even though Clark was NATO's supreme allied commander in 1997 at a time when Roth was the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and Dean is schooled in small-state politics.

From the Republican side, President George W. Bush also offered condolences. His father served with Roth in the Congress, and the ex-president was the keynote speaker at a tribute for Roth in 2001 in Wilmington.

Roth's death overshadowed a spike in political action with the approach of Delaware's presidential primary on Feb. 3, when the state's Democratic voters go to the polls to sort out nine candidates. The Republicans are skipping the primary because Bush's nomination for a second term is a foregone conclusion.

Lieberman came in Friday to campaign. Clark's local operation held an open house Thursday evening at its Wilmington headquarters, one of 700 such events across the country, and dialed in to a conference call with the candidate.

In addition, Clark's organization and Dean's band of volunteers competed in a forgettable race to be the first to file for the Delaware ballot. Clark won, filing on Tuesday while Dean filed Thursday.

Dueling endorsements also were announced. Clark's campaign picked up the support of state Rep. Dennis P. Williams and Kenneth W. Boulden Jr., the New Castle County clerk of the peace. Lieberman's campaign countered with state Rep. Melanie L. George.

 As of now, Lieberman is continuing to stump more seriously here than any of the other candidates. This was his fourth visit over the last year to a state that expects a personal touch from politicians -- as was all too obvious at Clark's open house with a question from Martha A. Denison, an official with the state employees' union.

"The question is, is he coming to Delaware or not?" Denison asked John C. Oldfield, the campaign's state director. Oldfield said Clark would come but could not say when.

Meanwhile, Lieberman was here, making four stops in New Castle County at a fund-raiser in Wilmington, a manufacturing plant in greater Newark, a holiday party for the United Auto Workers at Churchman's Crossing and a meet-and-greet at Democratic state headquarters near New Castle.

Lieberman's crowds ranged in size from about 15 people at the plant and party headquarters to 50 or 60 people at the fund-raiser and the UAW gathering. He appeared variously with U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell, all of whom have endorsed him. He also was accompanied by the first smothering clutch of reporters and television cameras the state has seen this primary season.

Not only did Lieberman extend his regrets about Bill Roth in person, he also mentioned another matter uppermost in Delawareans' thoughts. He wished good luck to the University of Delaware's football team in the Division I-AA finals Friday night, saying he hoped that what Chris Berman, the ESPN sports broadcaster, said when introducing Lieberman recently would apply to the Blue Hens, too.

"This guy could go all the way," Lieberman quoted Berman.

In campaign strategy Lieberman has focused on Delaware as the political equivalent of a firewall, gambling that if he falters in the opening caucuses in Iowa on Jan. 19 and the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire on Jan. 27, he can make his stand when seven states, including Delaware, vote a week later.

"Feb. 3 is as important or more important than Iowa and New Hampshire," he said.

Lieberman used his visit to portray himself as the anti-Dean, an antidote to the front-runner who stunned the political world by collecting an endorsement from Al Gore Jr., the presidential candidate who had chosen Lieberman as a running mate in 2000.

"It's been quite a week. Somebody said, Howard Dean captured Al Gore, and the United States Army captured Saddam Hussein," Lieberman quipped.

"Howard Dean and I represent the choices most clearly. He's soft on defense and hard on the middle class and on business. . . I'm an independent-minded, center-out Democrat . . . pro-growth, pro-jobs, strong on security."

After a series of thrusts at Dean at his early events, Lieberman gave them up at Democratic headquarters, where Dean volunteer Steven Biener was there to watch. Lieberman said afterwards he was simply tired of hearing himself talk about Dean. No doubt that was it -- and not a clever sidestep of what could have been a made-for-the-media confrontation with Biener.

In a sign the primary is warming up, the voters finally engaged instead of observing as they have been, treating candidates more like celebrities than politicians.

Lieberman took questions on all sorts of issues, such as Iraq, tax cuts, health care and the Middle East. He warmed to a question about his views on welfare from Hope Burnett, a Newark resident who works at M Cubed Technologies Inc., the Newark-area plant Lieberman visited that makes plates for soldiers' armored vests.

Lieberman said the welfare system ought to be about opportunity and responsibility -- with the best opportunity provided by a growing economy and federal assistance for training, child care and transportation. Then he remarked on his questioner's name, which reminded him of President Bill Clinton's signature expression with a twist on his boyhood home in Arkansas, "I still believe in a place called Hope."

"I love your name," Lieberman said. "I believe in a man called Hope."

On this day Lieberman also stumbled into the full flavor of state politics -- those chance encounters with politicians from the other party, carried off in a genial matter that inevitably gives rise to the remark, "Only in Delaware."

As Lieberman arrived at the UAW party, he ran into U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the state's leading Republican and the chairman of Bush's re-election campaign here. Castle had spoken to the auto workers and was on his way out.

"It's very good of you to come out and endorse me," Lieberman said.

"My God, I'm the warm-up speaker for Joe Lieberman," Castle said.