Posted: Feb. 10, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

U.S. Sen. John R. Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat running for president, will be in Delaware on Tuesday for a $1,000-a-ticket fund-raiser on the home turf of U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the state party's own favorite son if he decides to run.

It is all right, though. Edwards' local hosts cleared their event with Biden first.

Edwards will be here to hobnob with a crowd composed largely of his fellow trial lawyers. About 25 people are expected to attend a dinner reception at the home of Wilmington lawyer Gary S. Nitsche, who is co-hosting the evening along with Wilmington lawyer Beverly L. Bove.

It is no surprise that Edwards is mining his fellow members of the plaintiffs' bar for financial backing. It is a something of a surprise he would do it here before Biden reveals his intentions.

With Biden sending mixed messages about what he will do, however, so are Delaware Democrats -- as is, in fact, the senator's own staff.

One lawyer who has a ticket for the dinner said the event would not be happening unless Biden gave the OK. "You can bet your life on that," the lawyer said. "There are people among us who are Sen. Biden's supporters for sure. You've got a guy who stood by us for years."

Claire M. DeMatteis, counsel to Biden, said Edwards is welcome to hold his event -- for now. "Sen. Biden has no problem with it, but it was made very clear by Delaware trial lawyers that if Sen. Biden decides to get in the presidential race, their allegiance is with him -- and their money," she said.

Edwards, a first-term senator elected in 1998, is one of six Democrats actively seeking the Democratic nomination in 2004 against Republican President George W. Bush. The others are Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Rev. Alfred "Al" Sharpton Jr. of New York. Still others are considering it, including Biden.

Edwards is the second Democratic presidential candidate to visit Delaware in this election cycle. Lieberman was the headliner in December for a fund-raiser for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner. His arrival also had local party members doing a delicate dance because of Biden.

State Democratic Chairman Richard H. Bayard said at the time, "As far as the Delaware Democratic Party is concerned, we're delighted to have someone of Joe Lieberman's stature. At the same time, we're very proud of Joe Biden."

Biden himself remains evasive, ruling himself neither out nor in. In two nationally televised appearances recently, he pronounced himself a firm fence-sitter.

In an appearance in January on MSNBC's "Hardball," broadcast from the University of Delaware, Biden told host Chris Matthews he was "considering it" but then called Kerry "the strongest candidate in the field" and Edwards "the single best natural candidate ever seen."

Speaking of the Democratic candidates collectively, Biden said, "My sincere hope is one of these guys catch fire."

Just this Sunday on ABC's "This Week," commentator George Stephanopoulos asked Biden to give a "yes or no" answer about whether he was considering a presidential bid next year. Biden paused and then said, "Yes."

Biden also had a brief burst of glory Friday in a Web site poll on -- New Jersey's Online Political Network. The poll asked, "Who is your choice [for] President in 2004?" and gave 16 options from the incumbent to "someone else."

As Biden's staff was eager to point out, in the early afternoon Biden was leading Bush 37 percent to 35 percent, although by late afternoon, the order had flipped with Bush at 35 percent and Biden at 27 percent. (New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was mired at 2 percent.)

By Monday afternoon, Bush had a commanding lead at 40 percent with Biden the only other candidate in double digits at 15 percent. (Clinton was up to 5 percent.)

Margaret Aitken, the senator's press secretary, insisted the results had nothing to do with Delaware being so close to New Jersey that Biden could be considered a surrogate favorite son.

"Sharpton's from New York," Aitken said. "So's Hillary."