Posted: Jan. 29, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

When John F. Kerry arrives Friday in New Castle for a political rally, Delaware will see something it never has seen before in the short, scarred history of its presidential primary -- a front-runner.

In the third try at finding a place on the presidential map, Kerry's appearance here after his victories in Democratic contests in the glitter states of Iowa and New Hampshire represents the first fleeting nod of credibility in Delaware's direction.

Delaware Democrats will be going to the polls Tuesday, a week after New Hampshire, along with voters in six other states in the next round of balloting to determine whether Kerry can keep his streak going in the seven-candidate field. Delaware Republicans will be sitting it out because of the inevitability of President George W. Bush's nomination.

As the Democratic hopefuls scatter south and west for votes, Kerry will come to Delaware for the first time, while Alfred C. "Al" Sharpton will swing by Saturday on his third stop. Joseph I. Lieberman, who has courted the state more diligently than anyone else, was forced by the winter storm to cancel a trip Wednesday but has rescheduled for Friday.

Lieberman counted on chugging in with what he called "Joe-mentum," but it seems more like "No-mentum" after a fifth-place showing in New Hampshire, and he needed a pep talk from U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, his chief Delaware backer, as he decided to keep going.

"I said, look, Joe, it's one primary in one state. There are 48 states to go. What are the rest of us, chopped liver?" Carper said. "A week from now, if you win them all, we can start picking furniture for the White House."

If Delaware gains from the status that Kerry's visit brings, there may be a little pick-me-up for him in return. State Democratic leaders are anticipating that the Massachusetts senator will be introduced at his rally by Joseph R. Biden Jr., his Delaware colleague who has expressed a split presidential preference between Kerry and Wesley K. Clark.

It is not an endorsement. Biden's staff made it very clear Thursday that the senator was sticking by his decision not to commit to anyone before the primary. In fact, Biden's office would not even say he was committed to attending the rally, but still . . .

If Kerry stands shoulder to shoulder on a stage with Biden, there would be a new effervescence in the political chemistry, even if the introduction were to be passed off as nothing more than senatorial courtesy. It was obvious in the way that word of the anticipated introduction went flying through Democratic circles.

"It's a matter of protocol at least, and I'm sure Kerry is hoping there's more than that," said Richard H. Bayard, the Democratic state chairman.

What a delicate dance this presidential nomination is. Delaware has waited a long time for a look at it, hampered not so much by its size and small pool of delegates but by the calendar.

The state switched to a primary from Iowa-style caucuses in 1996, only to make a rookie mistake and blunder into a costly feud with New Hampshire over its first-in-the-nation primary.

Delaware figured it would hold the second primary four days later, but New Hampshire figured otherwise. To protect the supremacy of its primary, it insisted on a weeklong window before any other state voted and slapped a candidate embargo on Delaware. The primary here labored, attracting only the also-rans like Republican Steve Forbes, who won here in 1996.

The Delaware Republicans were the first to give in, pulling out of the official primary in 2000 and paying for one of their own a week after New Hampshire's. They were rewarded with a visit from Bush, who attended a Delaware State Chamber of Commerce dinner, and by 2004, the state law was changed to the current schedule, putting Delaware in a pack of states voting the week after New Hampshire.

The candidates could come, but they did not -- because it appeared that Biden might run for president, until he ruled it out in August. That did not leave much steam for the Delaware primary.

Lieberman already has made four visits and set up a slender organization, although it was the biggest one here, fueled by the endorsements from Carper, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell. Sharpton campaigned. John R. Edwards made a brief, stealth trip for a private fund-raiser but otherwise has been absent.

Wesley K. Clark sent in a field director, who promised his candidate would visit but has yet to deliver. Howard B. Dean and Dennis J. Kucinich have volunteer operations here. Kerry is coming and stationed a staff member here last week.

Next week the voters take over. What they will do is uncertain, because this really amounts to the first time. "We don't have an established reputation. There's no basis for people to predict," said Joseph A. Pika, a political science professor at the University of Delaware.

Robert L. Byrd, a lobbyist and Democratic strategist for the governor, framed it this way. "The question is," Byrd said, "with all the work Lieberman has done here, do people stay with him or go with the Kerry juggernaut?"