Posted: Feb. 9, 2003
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
Delaware Republicans got a look at something
Saturday night at the Kent County Lincoln Day Dinner in Dover that
they had not seen themselves for more than 10 years.
A Republican governor.
They did it by importing as their guest
speaker Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a former four-term congressman who
became an instant political darling as the first Republican to be
elected Maryland's governor since 1966. He did it last year in a
state where 57 percent of the voters are Democrats by beating a
Kennedy -- Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, then the lieutenant governor.
The envy was palpable. "He's one of the most
sought-after speakers in the Republican Party, because of the
surprise victory, because of who he beat and because he's a rising
star," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national
committeewoman for Delaware.
Ehrlich spoke to a sold-out crowd of 565
people at the Dover Sheraton Hotel & Conference Center, his
attractiveness enhanced further because first lady Kendel Ehrlich, a
lawyer, is a 1983 graduate of the University of Delaware.
At 45, Ehrlich represented what Delaware
Republicans are only dreaming about -- a proven and youthful leader
with a future. Their last candidate to be elevated to the Congress
or the governorship, the premier offices here, was U.S. Rep. Michael
N. Castle when he was elected governor in 1984. Back then, Castle
was 45, too.
Ehrlich gave a half-hour pep talk on what it
takes to win a race you are expected to lose. He offered five rules:
--Draft your own plan and follow it, even if
others do not understand what you are doing.
--Don't be your own fund raiser.
--The quality of your television advertising
--Take advantage of your advantages. (Example
-- he was a Maryland native, which Townsend was not.)
Ehrlich's audience included two candidates who
want to run for governor next year -- William Swain Lee, a retired
Superior Court judge, and Michael D. Protack, an airline pilot, both
of whom bought tables at $350 to make the point. Lee took a part of
Ehrlich's message particularly to heart.
"I don't have to make those [fund-raising]
phone calls I hate. Let me go out and do the things I'm good at,"
Maybe, maybe not. "If my candidate thinks he's
going to run for governor without making phone calls, he's got
another think coming," said Donald C. Mell, a political adviser to
Lee is regarded as the front-runner for the
gubernatorial nomination in what is expected to be a race against
Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a first-term Democrat who has said she will
seek re-election. Democrats have controlled the office since the
Ehrlich noted that even the most successful
campaigns take their toll. He went to so many crab cake dinners --
the equivalent of Delaware chicken dinners -- that he was having
nightmares by the end. "A really big crab cake was chasing me down
an alley," he said.
Ehrlich also pointed out that he managed to
win a state with a population that is 29 percent African-American by
running with Michael S. Steele, now Maryland's first black
lieutenant governor. It was a remark made more significant by the
circumstances in which he delivered it.
This was a Lincoln Day Dinner, named for the
first Republican president who became known as the Great
Emancipator. This was Black History Month in a state where the
Republican Party sent out a press release to call attention to its
efforts to run biographical sketches of famous African-Americans on
its Web site.
This was also a dinner in which the
African-Americans waiting on the tables appeared to outnumber those
in the crowd.
If there was any hint of tension in the room,
it came from Maryland's interest in exploring the legalization of
slot machines and creating competition with Delaware. As state House
Speaker Terry R. Spence told Ehrlich to group laughter, "If you'll
hold back the slots . . . like 10 or 20 years, we'd appreciate it."
With the dinner held almost in the shadow of
Dover Downs and its casino, Ehrlich quipped about what he called his
real reason for attending. "I just wanted to visit a bunch of
Marylanders and our money," he said.
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