Posted: Jan. 30, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

John F. Kerry got himself a packed union hall Friday evening in New Castle, his U.S. Senate colleague Joseph R. Biden Jr. by his side and about 500 people craning to see him as though he could leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Earlier in the day, Joseph I. Lieberman puttered through the state with a lot less fuss, trolling for votes one by one in small knots of people at tried-and-true places like a bowling alley in New Castle and a popular farmer's market in Dover.

This is the merciless reality of presidential politics. The crowd comes to the front-runner. The underdog comes to the crowd.

Whatever the day's events meant to the contestants, it was a rare high note for Delaware's evolving presidential primary -- two candidates of caliber in the state on the same day. Kerry and Lieberman are a nationally known pair, the Massachusetts senator who has emerged as the leader for the nomination and the Connecticut senator who ran for vice president in 2000.

Kerry was making his first visit this campaign season to Delaware, Lieberman his fifth. There are four days left until Delaware's primary on Tuesday, the same day six other states vote. Kerry was unsure whether he would return here beforehand. Lieberman guaranteed he would.

On this day Kerry came in like a force of nature, trailing staff members everywhere and a traveling press corps of about 70 members to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall in New Castle, across Basin Road from his landing at the New Castle County Airport.

The candidate was showered with endorsements from the Delaware Democratic establishment, including state Vice Chairman James F. Hussey Jr., National Committeeman Bert A. DiClemente, Wilmington City Council President Theodore Blunt and more than 20 other state legislators, county officials from New Castle, Kent and Sussex and members of the Wilmington council.

Not Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, though, who was absent and neutral. Not Joe Biden, even though Biden called Kerry "a friend of mine" and "the guy most likely to beat [George W.] Bush," and Kerry called Delaware "Biden country" and answered someone who shouted that Biden should be secretary of state by saying, "You've got to elect me first before I can do that."

Biden and Kerry both said Biden's presence and praise did not constitute an endorsement. Whatever.

The crowd broke into chants of "Kerry! Kerry! Kerry!" as the candidate spoke, particularly when he assailed the president. Kerry spoke as though the nomination were his, training no fire on the six other Democrats still in the field.

"I came here to mark with you the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency," Kerry said. "We will make it clear on Nov. 2 that the only person in the United States who deserves to be laid off is George W. Bush . . . .

"We're coming, they're going, and don't let the door hit you on the way out."

Kerry spent considerable time after he spoke signing autographs and shaking hands in the festive atmosphere of the hall, where the walls were decked with U.S. flags and union banners, and the crowd was bright with union jackets and red t-shirts proclaiming Kerry "the real deal." The voters seemed to like what they saw.

"I just feel he's the guy to beat Bush, plain and simple. He's got the experience, he's been in the Senate, and he's a Vietnam vet," said Don Clagg of Brandywine Hundred.

"I'm excited because he seems to have caught the fire, and he's looking more and more presidential. I haven't really decided yet, but if he can come and grace little Delaware, I can come check him out," said Jean Bonner of Delaware City.

With considerably less hoopla, Lieberman's itinerary took him to the Bowlerama in New Castle and to Spence's Bazaar in Dover, and it certainly had the feel of presidential politics to it, too.

At the bowling alley, there were sneak attacks from rivals. The cars in the parking lot were leafleted with fliers promoting Kerry's rally later in the day, and Steven Biener, a volunteer for Howard B. Dean, showed up with a campaign sign. Biener quickly was surrounded by a flock of Lieberman's backers who serenaded him with a chant, "Let's go, Joe! Let's go, Joe!"

Biener's presence was an indication of how his candidate is doing here. If Lieberman had to employ an underdog's tactic of going to a crowd, Biener was reduced to piggybacking on that to steal some news coverage for Dean.

Lieberman got conquering-hero treatment when he arrived at the bowling alley, greeted by a sea of red, white and blue "Joe" campaign signs and the trademark chant from perhaps two dozen loyalists. His entourage included U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, his chief backer in Delaware, if not the country, as well as state Treasurer Jack A. Markell and state Rep. Melanie L. George.

Immediately Lieberman was engulfed by the presidential scrum -- a movable crush of reporters, television cameras and microphones from the Delaware and Philadelphia news media and the faithful volunteers with the "Joe" placards. Whenever the candidate tried to shake hands with a bowler, it looked like he was reaching through an octopus.

The advance team had done its work. The Bowlerama had two distinct sets of bowlers that morning, one a senior league and the other home-schoolers. Lieberman went right for the senior citizens.

He chatted with folks, asking one for a vote, congratulating another on her bowling score, complimenting a third for wearing a New England Patriots sweatshirt.

One of the voters was a true believer. Retiree Barbara Murray, a Democrat from Newark, has lived in Delaware for about four years after a lifetime in Connecticut. She said she went way back with Lieberman.

"He lived around the corner from me in Stanford. I always said that someday Joey was going to be president," Murray said.

Another voter was a recent convert. Ezra Temko, a student home in Newark while on a winter break from Oberlin College in Ohio, switched his support to Lieberman after Richard A. Gephardt, his first choice, dropped out.

"Lieberman is the only candidate who's strong on defense and still progressive on social issues," Temko said.

Lieberman, who has wooed Delaware Democrats more ardently than any of his rivals, was here to keep it up. Never mind that a week earlier he had courted New Hampshire voters by pledging allegiance to their dearest institution, promising to defend the primacy of their first-in-the-nation primary "to the death." Now he was focused on a different heartthrob and on what gives Delawareans their bragging rights.

"Delaware is the first state, and it's getting to be first in my mind," Lieberman said.

"I have said all along that the Feb. 3 primaries would be the first big test of my candidacy," he added. "I'm the one real moderate in this race. I'm the candidate who can win because elections are won in the center."

In Delaware, elections also are won by candidates who know how to be civil. Lieberman got that right, too, pronouncing himself undaunted by Biden's pose with Kerry.

"It's an act of hospitality, I guess," Lieberman said. "That's what he told me."