Posted: March 17, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

No one knows better than William Swain Lee that he had a chance to steal the show the other night at the Republican State Committee dinner in Dover, but instead he settled for a workmanlike performance.

The circumstances last Friday all appeared to favor Lee, the retired judge who is running for governor. He had a full house of about 300 Republicans, he was seated prominently at the best table in the place, and his showing of 80 percent in a straw poll for the gubernatorial nomination was strong enough for an old Soviet to love.

After all, Vladimir Putin only got 71 percent of the vote when he was re-elected as the Russian president two days later.

What Lee needed to do to bring down the house was to announce his choice for lieutenant governor -- someone who runs separately by law but functions by recent custom as a running mate, in the manner of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. on the Democratic side.

"That would have been a nice time to do it," Lee said.

It is not as though Lee has not had the opportunity to find someone. He has been consolidating his standing with the party since Return Day, hardly distracted by a pesky challenge from Michael D. Protack, a Yorklyn airline pilot.

By not introducing a running mate, Lee left breathing room for a pair of wanna-be candidates for lieutenant governor, although he argued that their lackluster performance in the straw poll showed the party still expected him to take the lead.

Of the 101 votes cast for lieutenant governor in the mock election, about one-third of them went for "other." Kelly L. Gates, a Hockessin businesswoman, had 50 votes, and Tyler P. Nixon, a Wilmington attorney, had 17 votes.

"I was satisfied that the number of none-of-the-above reflected the situation," Lee said.

Lee says he has no timetable for making a selection, but he is running out of time nevertheless. The Republican state convention is scheduled for May, when the party votes on endorsements for statewide office.

Lee says he has a short list of two or three people under consideration, although he would not part with any names. "We want to have made our choice a number of weeks prior to the state convention," he said.

Neither Nixon nor Gates will commit to stepping out of the way for Lee's candidate, but they have not ruled it out, either.

"I'll jump off that bridge when I get to it," Nixon said.

"Bill Lee and I are talking. He hasn't counted me out. We'll just leave it at that," Gates said.

Lee says the biggest barrier to choosing a running mate is finding someone who not only has the talent and the interest, but also the time and the financial wherewithal to campaign and to serve in what the state constitution sets up as a part-time job.

The absence of a candidate also could be signs of the challenge it is likely to be to run against Carney, who led the statewide Democratic ballot in 2000 with 62 percent of the vote, or perhaps a lack of faith in Lee's strength at the top of the ticket. Still, these are questions for another day, and they go away if Lee taps what he describes as "that person that we look at and say 'wow.'"

In fairness to Lee, it should be pointed out that he is under the gun because the Republican calendar conspires against him. Democrats are not facing similar questions about a gap in their statewide ticket -- the huge and seemingly permanent one against Republican Congressman Michael N. Castle -- because their calendar disguises them.

The Republicans have two key events each year, the state committee dinner and the state convention, which showcase their candidates or expose the lack of them.

The Democrats formally meet only once every four years, the year after the presidential election, when they hold a convention to elect their officers. (This does not count the Democrats' "little convention," which they hold in presidential years to elect delegates to the national convention.) It has the effect of keeping the pressure off the Democrats to fill their statewide ballot until the filing deadline in late July.

Lee has set the bar fairly high for a running mate. He would like someone the voters would regard as a future governor, preferably someone who could bring a new image to the Republican Party.

"Although we've made progress, we're still too white, too gray and too trousered," Lee said.