Posted: March 13, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, one of Delaware's best-known Democrats, had not turned up at the Republican State Committee dinner Friday evening, there might not have been any spice at all.

Sure, the Republicans' 146-member governing body took a straw poll for its statewide nominations, but it came out as expected, with the vote favoring retired Judge William Swain Lee for governor, whoever Kelly L. Gates is for lieutenant governor, and state Rep. David H. Ennis for insurance commissioner.

The Republicans did not bother to vote about Congressman-for-life Michael N. Castle, who probably could have won a straw poll at a Democratic State Committee dinner.

With such a ho-hum mock election, it was the appearance of Delaware's Democratic junior senator that was unexpected. Carper showed up during the cocktail hour at the Dover Sheraton Inn & Conference Center, shaking some hands, chatting with Terry A. Strine, the Republican state chairman, and hugging Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the national committeewoman.

Carper was not there to party-crash and hardly to party-switch. It was simply one of those only-in-Delaware moments, when it is expected that people will materialize where they are not expected and the encounter will go pleasantly.

In this case, Carper happened to be attending an American Legion banquet also being held at the Sheraton, so he ambled through the Republican gathering, too. Nor was he the only one taking advantage of the overlapping events.

It meant Castle could attend both, and so could Bill Lee, who bustled from meeting room to meeting room, wearing or not wearing his American Legion campaign hat, depending on where he was. Lee used to be a Marine, as his campaign is happy to remind anyone.

The straw poll was supposed to be the highlight of the Republicans' evening -- a sort of spring training for the candidates where the games are meaningless but everyone wants to know the score, anyway.

"Put straw in the air and see how the winds are blowing," Strine said. "They're fun. They are encouraging to those who come out ahead and inspiring to those who come out behind. I think they are more entertainment."

As straw polls go, and they really go nowhere, this one had more going for it than most. It did take a sounding of the candidates' approval within the Republican organization that is responsible for delivering on Election Day.

In each case, the candidate who got the most votes was the one with the deepest roots within the party organization. Not that the organization distinguished itself. Of the 146 members of the state committee, only 101 of them attended the dinner and voted. Altogether the Republicans had a crowd of about 300 people, but only state committee members were eligible to participate in the poll.

The voting was taken by paper ballot, and the voters had an option for "other" if they did not favor a candidate.

For governor, Lee outpolled Michael D. Protack, a Yorklyn airline pilot, 81-19. Lee, who was in the party leadership as far back as the 1960s before going on the bench, is making his second bid for the gubernatorial nomination and a chance to run against Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat. Protack is casting about for a statewide office for the second election a row.

In the voting for lieutenant governor, "other" had such a showing that it nearly upturned that old political saying, you cannot beat somebody with nobody. Gates, a Sedgely Farms businesswoman who started her campaign last year, had 50 votes. As shallow as her roots in the organization are, they are deeper than the ones for Tyler P. Nixon, a Wilmington attorney who recently declared his interest in the post and got 17 votes. "Other" clocked in at 34 votes in what can be characterized as a vote of no confidence in the choices for taking on Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., the first-term Democrat.

The only vote that really matters for lieutenant governor belongs to Bill Lee, and he has yet to cast it. He said he tried to have a candidate to present at the state committee dinner but could not accomplish it.

For insurance commissioner, the vote was 60-40 for Ennis over Jeffrey E. Cragg, a fellow Brandywine Hundred resident who is the New Castle County Republican co-chairman. Ennis has been in the legislature since 1980.

The Republican nominee for insurance commissioner will face the winner of a Democratic primary between Matthew P. Denn, a Wilmington lawyer who was counsel to the governor, and Karen Weldin Stewart, a Wilmington insurance consultant who was the party's candidate in 2000. Donna Lee Williams, the three-term Republican incumbent, is not running again.

The balloting was supervised by Richard A. Forsten, a lawyer who is the party's parliamentarian, and Thomas J. Shopa, an accountant who is the treasurer. Their vote-counting in a small room was observed by party staffers and candidates' representatives.

One ballot was torn slightly at the bottom, but after consultation, Forsten and Shopa determined it was not invalidated by this hanging chad.

The most talked-about tally was the write-in for state Rep. Tina Fallon, a Seaford Republican who is famous for being 86 years old. In the balloting for lieutenant governor, she got two votes. First one vote turned up, and there was some joking about Fallon probably casting it for herself, and then the other one came in.

"Her mother's here," someone quipped.