Posted: Jan. 16, 2004


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper's voice is heard on the radio a lot these days. Sometimes it is for a public service spot, asking for blood donations, and sometimes it is a campaign spot, asking his fellow Democrats to vote for Joseph I. Lieberman for president.

Carper's split messages appear to reflect the humdrum nature of Delaware politics right now -- not exactly riveted on the presidential primary 18 days away on Tuesday, Feb. 3. You would think Carper was asking the voters to give blood.

The election here follows Iowa's caucuses next Monday and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 27 as part of a cluster of seven states voting on the same day. Delaware may be part of the early press of the presidential selection season, but here the thrill is a yawn.

Among the eight Democratic candidates, only Lieberman has been an eager suitor. He seems to care more about the primary than Delaware does. His major competition appears to be coming not so much from his rivals themselves, but from ambivalence about the voting and the national attention on Howard B. Dean, Wesley K. Clark and the surges of John F. Kerry and John R. Edwards.

"It's hard to generate interest in primaries in general," said Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker, a first-term Democrat.

It is true. Primaries are unloved affairs -- the political equivalent of family feuds that force voters to choose sides when they often would rather not. In the case of a presidential primary like this one, Delaware voters in general have not been invested in any candidate since U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. decided not to run, so why mix it up when the party expects to unite behind the nominee, anyway?

Most of the state's leading Democrats are sitting this one out. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner has decided not to endorse anyone. Biden has not ruled out an endorsement but seems inclined not to. Baker is not endorsing.

Carper, of course, has committed to Lieberman. Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell also are backing Lieberman, tandem endorsements that have deprived the voters of the spectacle of two rising Democrats on different sides. Now that would have been worth watching.

Clark's campaign seems to be digging for endorsements the hardest, announcing this week that former Gov. Russell W. Peterson and former Mayor William T. McLaughlin signed on. Of the 25 Democrats in the General Assembly, only seven have lined up with candidates, dividing among Clark, Dean, Lieberman, Richard A. Gephardt and Alfred C. Sharpton.

"People just aren't talking about it," said state Sen. Nancy W. Cook, a Democrat who is staying on the sidelines. "The debates have generated some interest, but if it's filtering down, I haven't seen it."

Some of the reticence about the primary is simply structural. Delaware has 518,249 registered voters, but not even half of them can go to the polls next month.

The state's 224,497 Democrats, accounting for 43 percent of the electorate, can vote. The 173,812 Republicans who represent 34 percent of the voters are skipping the primary because President George W. Bush's re-nomination is uncontested. The remaining 119,940 voters unaffiliated with a major party -- totaling 23 percent of the electorate -- are barred from primaries.

Toss into the mix Delaware's unfamiliarity with presidential primaries -- this is only the state's third one since switching away from caucuses -- and it is no wonder interest is so low. Besides, it is too cold for a campaign, no matter what is going on in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Turnout here is expected to be abysmal. In the 2000 presidential primary, it was 5 percent for the Democrats, when about 11,000 of them voted in a contest that Al Gore Jr. won with 57 percent of the vote against Bill Bradley.

"I don't see a big turnout unless something happens quickly. No one is talking about it, not even the politicians," said James R. Soles, a University of Delaware professor emeritus of political science.

Soles sees Lieberman, Dean and Clark in the running here -- Lieberman because of the personal attention he has paid and Dean and Clark because of the national coverage they have received. Baker would not be surprised if Lieberman won with his backing from Carper, Carney and Markell.

"The supporters of Lieberman are going to make an all-out push, and they can do it," Baker said. "I don't think endorsements mean that much, but it's the organization they can put together."

Based on the primary, the Democrats will award delegates to candidates. Then they will hold a state convention to vote on the makeup of their 23-member delegation to the national nominating convention July 26-29 in Boston. Similarly, the Republicans will have to decide who gets to be part of an 18-member delegation to their national convention Aug. 30-Sept. 2 in New York City.

That is precious few people -- 23 Democrats and 18 Republicans -- to send. The presidential primary may be generating few sparks, but watch out. The politicians will be duking it out big time for those delegate slots. That is what really matters to them.