Delaware Looks to Become Player in ’04

Posted November 7, 2003 at 6:22pm

Long the black sheep of the early presidential primary states, Delaware is slowly awakening to its potentially influential role in selecting the Democratic Party nominee in 2004.

“This is the first time we have ever really been exposed in a Democratic primary,” said lobbyist Bob Byrd. “I don’t think anybody in Delaware knows what that means yet.”

In 1996, Delaware moved its primary to Feb. 24 — just four days after New Hampshire — but then-President Bill Clinton was not seriously opposed in the contest.

Delaware moved within nine days of New Hampshire in 2000 but the Granite State, always leery of encroachment on its first-in-the-nation status, appealed to the national party leadership to invalidate the results of Delaware’s primary.

Neither Vice President Al Gore nor former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley campaigned in the state. Gore won an essentially meaningless 57 percent to 40 percent victory.

Because of their past powerlessness, Delaware voters are more surprised than analytical when the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination visit the state.

“The few [candidates] that have come through don’t get any questions,” said Celia Cohen, who runs the DelawareGrapevine.com news site. “They are treated more as curiosities or political stars. We don’t have the scrutiny that the candidates find when they go to Iowa or New Hampshire.”

State party Executive Director Nicole Majeski relates that when Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) stepped off his campaign bus for a recent visit, voters were shocked to see a presidential candidate in the flesh.

And Lieberman has been by far the most active of the nine candidates in courting First State voters, visiting the state twice, most recently on Oct. 20, one day after he made public his decision to skip the Iowa caucuses. Interestingly, Delaware was also Lieberman’s first stop after being picked by Gore as his vice presidential nominee during the 2000 campaign.

Lieberman’s wife, Hadassah, attended the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner last Tuesday; Lieberman and seven of the other candidates were in Boston at a CNN-sponsored debate. Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) was courted to attend the Delaware event but decided instead to campaign in Iowa.

As Byrd points out, Lieberman’s focus on the state should help him come February.

“If [Lieberman] has not done well in Iowa or New Hampshire, he has to win some primaries on Feb. 3, which means Delaware is very much in play,” Byrd said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton was scheduled to make his second visit to the state on Sunday, speaking at a church in Wilmington. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) traveled to the state earlier in the year for a trial lawyers fundraiser but has not returned for any public events. Neither Gephardt nor former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have made campaign stops.

Lieberman also secured an early leg up in the endorsement game, winning the backing of Sen. Tom Carper, Lt. Gov. John Carney and state Treasurer Jack Markell in August. Lieberman did a fundraiser for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) in December and the two are personally close, but Minner has not yet backed a candidate.

Carper, who served in the House and as the state’s governor before being elected to the Senate in 2000, was attached to Lieberman’s hip during his October visit, Democratic sources said.

Given the state’s size (the second smallest in area, sixth smallest in total population), endorsements from known political figures are seen as influential in determining the eventual winner.

“You bring [their] organizations to the table,” said Byrd. “[Lieberman] has the hierarchy of those organizations” with him now.

Ned Davis, a former Democratic National Committeeman and a legislative lobbyist, said the endorsements “should help Joe but will not be enough to catapult him, particularly if [Sen. Joseph] Biden or Ruth Ann go with someone else.”

“Biden is still the real leader of the party,” Davis added.

Biden, long the golden boy of Delaware Democratic politics, contemplated entering the 2004 presidential race himself earlier this year before bowing out in mid-August. He first ran for the nation’s highest office in 1987, dropping out before the first votes were cast.

“Until Joe made his announcement, everyone was hands off here,” Byrd said.

Biden has said publicly that he has narrowed his choice to Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

Most insiders believe Biden is leaning heavily toward Kerry but has not yet endorsed him because of family ties to the Clark campaign.

Biden’s sister and longtime campaign manager, Valerie Biden Owens, is a principal in the consulting firm Joe Slade White & Co., which is handling the media for Clark’s presidential bid.

Kerry’s campaign could get another endorsement boost in the near future if — as expected — Wilmington Mayor James Baker, who is black, throws his support behind the Massachusetts Senator.

Wilmington, by far the largest city in the state with a population of nearly 73,000 according to the 2001 Census, is also heavily black; roughly 58 percent of the population is African-American.

A signal of Baker’s leanings may have come last Wednesday when Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, stopped in the state for a series of coffees, one of which was held at the home of the mayor’s chief of staff.

“The Kerry operation will probably be the strongest overall when it comes to making a final push,” predicted Alan Hoffman, a former chief of staff for Biden who is a lobbyist with Timmons & Co.

Although Lieberman, Kerry and Sharpton have made some early forays into the state, the race still remains largely unformed, said several neutral observers.

Hoffman said the race will come down to Kerry, Lieberman and Dean. Although Dean has had almost no presence in the state, Hoffman argues that Dean’s ability to tap into “frustration” among primary voters coupled with his huge campaign war chest make him viable.

Gephardt’s chances may be dependent in large part on the organizational strength of labor, which was widely credited with delivering Delaware to Gore in the 2000 primary.

“Gephardt hasn’t done anything yet,” said Byrd. “The plan is to wait and see exactly how the labor thing shakes out for him.”

Gephardt’s hope of securing the national AFL-CIO endorsement was dealt a severe blow late last week with the news that the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees plan to endorse Dean.

None of the candidates has advertised yet, due in large part to the incredibly expensive cost of buying time in the state.

The Philadelphia media market, the fourth most expensive in the country, covers roughly 75 percent of Delaware. (The Salisbury, Md., market covers the remaining one-quarter.)

One gross rating point costs more than $400 in the Philadelphia market; a reasonable 1,000 point buy (meaning the average viewer would see the ad 10 times) would cost a campaign upwards of $400,000.

Because of its small size and the cost of communicating in it, Delaware remains a retail politics state.

“A lot of people have driven through [the state] on I-95,” said Rep. Mike Castle (R), who served in the state House, state Senate, and as the state’s governor before coming to Congress in 1992. “People who stop and take the time really make a difference. A physical presence is important.”