Posted: Oct. 15, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The first clues came about two weeks ago. State Republican Chairman Terry A. Strine told some party insiders there could be a star-quality candidate -- someone with four children, a degree from a top law school and high-level Washington experience -- willing to run against U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Democrat up for election next year.

People started guessing that Strine was talking about Michele M. Rollins, the businesswoman behind Dover Downs and Rose Hall, a luxury vacation resort in Jamaica. She had a Georgetown law degree, federal regulatory posts and a 23-year-long marriage and four children with John W. Rollins Sr., a business titan and Republican financier who died in 2000.

By Friday night, U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle all but gave the identity away by dropping a new hint during his remarks at the 21st annual "Salute at Vicmead," the premier Republican fund raiser held at the Vicmead Hunt Club in Centreville in the heart of Chateau Country.

"I hear whispers of a young lady whose initials are M.R. who might be thinking about running for higher office," Castle said.

Michele Rollins was the toast of Vicmead, a presence even without being there. Although the event was located practically in her backyard, her office said she was traveling.

Rollins herself has not said a public word about running, and there are no assurances she will decide to do it, but she is known to be immersed in a series of conversations with Republican leaders here and in Washington. She certainly was the buzz among 400 or so people at the event.

This was her crowd, her neighborhood, an enclave impervious to the Democratic march through the northern reaches that dominate state politics, a place where a genteel Republicanism is as prevailing as names with Roman numerals at the end.

Event-goers were swooning over the prospect of having Rollins at the top of their ticket, even though no one really even knows where she stands politically. Castle and state Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, who counts Rollins as a constituent, believe Rollins shares their moderate philosophy -- fiscally conservative and socially progressive -- but do not know for sure.

Edmund N. "Ned" Carpenter II, the dean of Delaware lawyers, is supposed to be the one who first thought of Rollins. He was not willing to say, but he was more than willing to discuss her.

"I think she'd be fabulous," Carpenter said. "I think it would revitalize the Republican Party. Everybody's been kind of down in the mouth, and this would be a breath of fresh air -- someone with not only the charm but also the smarts."

No one seemed more thrilled than R. Thomas Wagner Jr., the state auditor who will be on the 2006 ballot. With Attorney General M. Jane Brady looking at a judgeship instead of a projected race against Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the Democratic senator's son, Wagner expects to be the prime target for the Democrats, who have been gobbling up statewide wins lately.

Rollins could provide covering fire at the top of the ticket and occupy more of Carper's attention, instead of giving him a free pass to campaign for other Democrats.

"I'm happy beyond belief," Wagner said. "Thursday morning at the Leadership Prayer Breakfast, Tom Carper had a different look. For me, it would like picking up the paper and seeing Beau decided to run for auditor instead of attorney general."

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The "Salute at Vicmead" honors Delaware's leading Republican officeholders. Year in and and year out, it has been Mike Castle, and it has been only Mike Castle since Carper beat U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a five-term Republican, in 2000.

The tickets are not cheap. They range from individual tickets for $175 to 8-ticket packages for $1,500 for "Vicmead Sponsors" and $2,500 for "Vicmead Eagles."

The reward for attending is a program that is inversely proportional to the price of the tickets. In other words, it is guaranteed to be short.

Traditionally W. Laird Stabler Jr., the party's past national committeeman, introduces Castle, but Stabler had surgery Monday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a growth in his mouth. Through a letter from his son, Stabler sent along his customary remarks, which always set the standard for the evening of brevity:

"He regrets not being able to introduce Mike Castle for the one millionth time as the man who needs no introduction."

In Stabler's absence, Robert V.A. Harra Jr., the Wilmington Trust president, drew the assignment to introduce the governor-turned-congressman. Harra also got the mood -- and the reason -- for the short program just right, as he noted that Castle holds the record for the state's lone member in the U.S. House of Representatives with seven terms.

"For those of you who have been at the bar for an hour, that would be 14 years," Harra said.

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As short as the Republicans have gotten in statewide officeholders -- they have three out of nine -- they are long in deep-pocketed contributors. An oversized white message card listed 13 corporations, couples and individuals who attended as "Vicmead Eagles."

Among the companies, there were familiar ones like AstraZeneca, Wilmington Trust and probably the valedictory appearance of what used to be known as MBNA. No, the bank has not morphed yet into Bank of America, but its name was written in the style of its new logo as "mbna."

Talk about shrinking before our very eyes.

What was lacking in statewide officeholders also was made up by a bevy of lower-tier officials, mostly legislators and party officers, who were all introduced.

About two dozen of them were asked to crowd onto a small stage under a circus-size white tent, where the program was held. It led to the quip of the night, an aside from John S. Bonk, the Christiana-Mill Creek Republican chair.

"I hope all these people weren't comped," Bonk said.