Posted: Jan. 13, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer


"Tough Times. Tough Choices. Tough Governor. Ruth Ann! 2004"

          -- political sticker distributed on Return Day

Anyone who settles on a campaign slogan with "tough times" and "tough choices" in it is not expecting a cakewalk to re-election.

Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat who is the first Delaware governor of the 21st Century, the first woman to be governor here and the first downstater to reach the office in a generation, is also the first governor since the early 1970s to have the other party looking forward to the re-election campaign.

It is what comes from trying to run a state during economic times that the National Governors Association has called "the most dire fiscal situation since World War II." It is what comes from watching the histrionics of militant smokers who chant "Ban Ruth Ann" and regard her as something out of the Taliban.

"There will be a big effort against her. One of the things that beats governors is a bad economy. One of the things that beats governors is little bills that get blown up," said Glenn C. Kenton, a Republican who was the secretary of state for Gov. Pierre S. du Pont from 1977 to 1985.

Whatever the perils, Minner is hardly a politician who scares easily. After a 30-year trek from the governor's receptionist to the governor, with stops as a legislator and lieutenant governor in between, she is displaying the confidence of someone who understands it is harder to get the office than to keep it. She likes her chances.

"On my side, all I hear is encouragement to run. We've managed state government better than any other state," Minner said.

Although gubernatorial politics never is far from party leaders' thoughts -- not with the most prized office in Delaware at stake with its power, prestige and patronage -- the pace of the 2004 race appears to be picking up much earlier than other recent contests for a second term, not a good sign for an incumbent.

It is a stark contrast to the last three governors, when Democrats ran tokens against du Pont in 1980 and Michael N. Castle for his second race in 1988, and the Republicans nearly despaired of finding a candidate against Thomas R. Carper the first time he ran in 1992. Democratic challengers William J. Gordy and Jacob Kreshtool were not exactly household names, and if Republican challenger B. Gary Scott was, it was only because of all of those yellow signs from his real estate business, not politics.

Instead, the Republicans already are getting serious about the candidacy of William Swain Lee, the retired judge who even now has the makings of a campaign organization in place as well as promises of financial backing. Lee's front-runner status is sturdy enough that the noises coming from other possible candidates are having little resonance.

Lee is a household name. He got the public's attention five years ago because of  Thomas J. Capano's murder trial, and he got his party's attention in 2000 by coming within 46 votes of the nomination without whining about losing.

"Bill Lee would make an excellent governor. He's got brains, energy and pizzazz," said W. Laird Stabler Jr., the Republican national committeeman who has signed on as Lee's campaign chairman.

Not to be out-hustled, Minner has made moves, too. She already has made clear she is running again and announced she is sticking with Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. as a running mate. She made a mid-term correction in the governor's office, appointing a chief of staff who is expected to give it more structure and tend to relations with the legislature. She also brought in U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic presidential contender, to headline a fund-raiser last month, even if the attendance and the news coverage both were a little thin.

If Minner and Lee are circling each other, neither appears willing to engage yet in out-and-out political combat. She says, "I've got a job to do for the next two years," and he says, "I'm not going to be out yipping at her heels all the time."

Minner says she wants a second term because she hopes to govern in better times after dealing with the economic downturn and the national security matters following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She says she would like to have increasing the number of reading teachers as a top priority, instead of paring away at the budget while avoiding tax increases, employee layoffs and raids on the state's emergency reserve fund.

Lee seems content for now to give the governor the room to trip herself. "How she performs her job will determine whether she gets re-elected or not," he said.

Minner's fellow Democrats look at what are considered to be her negatives and regard them as positives.

"She's going to win big. The reason is, she's been a good governor. Nobody knows more about the state than she does, and she has the courage to stand behind what she believes. The smoking bill, the budget, all that just shows she knows what she's doing," said Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, a former Democratic national committeeman for Delaware.

"She's fine. People are pretty smart. They understand that these times are difficult times. This has not been occurring in a vacuum. People can look at their own 401(k)s and bank accounts," said state Treasurer Jack A. Markell. He noted that the state earlier this month retained the highest possible credit ratings in recognition of its fiscal policies.

Republicans don't expect Minner to be a pushover -- especially not in a state that has taken on a decidedly Democratic tilt in key elections in recent years. The electorate last voted for Republicans for president and governor in 1988, and both U.S. senators are Democrats.

"While [Minner] certainly is not unbeatable, it's an uphill climb. One of the best things going her way is, she's running in what is clearly a Democratic state," said Kenton, the former secretary of state.

Still, Kenton believes the Republicans are making the right call in focusing on the governorship -- because they have a better chance there than in taking on U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. or Carper or Markell.

"Of the statewide candidates, the one to pick to have a problem is Minner, but the rumors of her political demise are greatly exaggerated. She's got more going for her than against her," Kenton said. "But if you were to ask which one of the statewide officials would stumble, you'd look at her."