Posted: Oct. 13, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper said something that probably was worth attention when he went to the Wilmington Manor Fire Co. on Wednesday to give the firefighters a federal grant.

As he acknowledged the volunteer company's vice president, he teased, "Vice president. That's the job I'm interested in. There's a lot less competition."

Oh no. There are two of them. Both of Delaware's senators are gazing longingly at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol.

U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the senior Democrat, is doing it openly, publicly considering a run for president in 2008. Carper, the junior Democrat, has his eye on the back way, Mr. Insider to Biden's Mr. Outsider.

Not that anyone whose heart and knees are in better shape than Richard B. Cheney's ever talks about being vice president just to be vice president, and Carper's are. He runs the Caesar Rodney Half Marathon, all 13.1 miles of it, in Wilmington every year.

This apparently was not the first time Carper has mentioned the vice presidency. He revealed he made a similar quip during a meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist organization where he is the vice chair, in the presence of U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Iowa Gov. Thomas J. Vilsack and Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, all regarded as potential candidates for president.

"They're laughing uproariously, and so am I," Carper said.

Maybe. If Carper told a joke without a purpose, though, it would be the first time.

Whatever Carper's ultimate intentions, he has been working steadily to establish himself as a national player since his return to Washington in 2000. After 10 years as the state's lone U.S. representative followed by eight years as governor, he went back to the Congress by beating U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a five-term Republican.

It was a momentous changing of the guard, further elevating the reputation Carper already had secured for himself with the most statewide election victories in Delaware history and giving him the credentials to move quickly to make his mark in the Congress. By 2004 he had a beachhead in leadership as a deputy whip, Mr. Insider at work.

Carper's next order of business is his 2006 re-election campaign. Despite his performance against Roth, the Republicans are signaling they do not want to give him a free pass. At the moment the Republicans are trying to recruit Michele M. Rollins, a prominent and deep-pocketed business executive who has been generous to the party.

Carper's reaction to the possibility was part gracious and part steely. "If she runs, I'm voting for her. I've been a big fan of hers for a long time," he quipped, then followed it with a reminder about what happened another time the Republicans fielded a high-profile woman against him.

It was 1984, Carper was running for his second House term, and his opponent was Elise R.W. du Pont, then the first lady. Carper polled 58 percent, all the more impressive for a junior congressman in a year that Delaware went Republican for Ronald Reagan for president and Michael N. Castle for governor.

"I couldn't believe she decided to run for Congress, and then I couldn't believe we beat her by the margin we did. Whoever the Republicans pick, we'll be ready," Carper said.

Recently Carper has been attracting a share of national attention, some of it serious and some of it silly.

On the serious side, he has placed himself in the middle of a Democratic dialogue about his party's future. Along with Arkansas Sen. Blanche L. Lincoln and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Carper is an honorary Senate chair for the Third Way, a progressive think tank. Last week it issued a report on the Democrats' electoral prospects.

"The Politics of Polarization," by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, analyzed election trends to show that the Democrats cannot win by moving to the left and appealing to the party's liberal base but must move to the center, instead.

Carper did not have to be converted to that strategy. He already was persuaded that a centrist, common-sense approach has been the key to making the Democrats dominant in Delaware, and he intends to make that point to his national colleagues.

"The message is from Delaware to the country. The Democratic Party here is in many respects a model for the national party," he said.

On the silly side, there was a gossipy item last month in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, suggesting Carper is engaged in a cover-up. In a saucy column called "Heard on the Hill," it said:

"Did Sen. Tom Carper get a little makeover before returning to Washington this fall? Folks are noticing that the Delaware Democrat's hair is noticeably less gray. 'It's way darker,' one eagle-eyed Democratic aide told HOH, adding, 'Tom Carper appears to be gearing up for a starring role in a "Just for Men" commercial.'"

The item may be further proof that the Capitol is so polarized, the folks there cannot see shades of gray. As of Wednesday, Carper's hair suited him less for a role in "Just for Men" than "The Natural."

It did not look at all as though Carper was coloring it. "I'm not, but I'd like to. My wife said I should start," he said.

Maybe it could help Carper try for that other role in "Just for Vice President."