Posted: April 22, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

In the 13th year of gubernatorial exile, the Delaware Republicans are bringing in someone who can commiserate to speak at their state convention this weekend.

R. James Nicholson, known these days as the Veterans Affairs secretary in the Bush administration, was the national Republican Party's chairman or vice chairman during its wilderness years when Bill Clinton held the White House for the Democrats.

For Nicholson, it all worked out happily ever after when the Republicans took back the presidency on the last year of his watch as chairman.

For now, state Republicans can do little more than sigh when they think about their prospects for returning to power. The best they are being offered by Terry A. Strine, their Pollyannaish chairman who is running for re-election, is "difficult challenges."

As Strine said in a recent letter to party members, "My vision [is] becoming the majority party in Delaware at every level, recognizing that the timetable may well be a decade or longer."

The Republicans are meeting in Brandywine Hundred for a two-day convention, beginning Friday with a dinner where Nicholson is speaking, and continuing Saturday when the delegates elect officers for two-year terms and conduct other business. The focus is on the selection for state chair.

These are strange times in state politics. The Democrats, who are electing a new state chair next month, cannot give the post away, even though the party holds the governor and two U.S. senators within their possession of six of the nine statewide offices. The Democrats also see themselves going into the next election with a dream statewide ticket, headed by U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, state Treasurer Jack A. Markell and likely a Biden for attorney general.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have a contest for chair. It seems like fighting over the barn after the horse has gotten out.

Strine is seeking a second term against a challenge from Jeffrey E. Cragg, the New Castle County Republican co-chairman, although the outcome does not appear to be in doubt.

By all accounts Strine has the votes to win. The outstanding question is whether he can orchestrate the voting to camouflage his lack of support in Sussex County, the strongest base the Republicans have in the state.

"The Sussex delegation was specifically chosen to vote against Terry Strine," said William Swain Lee, the 2004 gubernatorial nominee who recently took over as the Sussex County Republican chairman. "If I do my job, we will vote unanimously for the winner."

The race for state chair has gone from bang to whimper. An anonymous underground calling itself the Swift Boat Republicans for Truth fired away at Strine, questioning his residency and Republican credentials, but it has not been heard from in weeks.

Cragg said he had nothing to do with Swift Boat Republicans. His campaign has been mild at best. He has not attacked Strine, explaining, "Those issues are out there, and the delegates will be able to make their own decisions without Jeff Cragg bringing them to their attention."

Instead, Cragg has spoken about the state of the party. The Republicans have been unable to counter the surging Democratic tendencies of New Castle County, where roughly two-thirds of the voters live, a stark demographic reality that cost the party the insurance commissioner's office and three upstate legislative seats in 2004.

The Republicans have not elected someone new to statewide office since M. Jane Brady became the attorney general in 1994. The Democrats have done it in three of last four elections -- with Markell in 1998, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. in 2000 and Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn last year.

"This is not a contest with Terry. It is a contest to create a better party," Cragg told a Republican gathering in Hartly last weekend. "The simple fact is, we have lost a lot in the past two years on Terry's watch."

Strine for his part has been as eager as Rocky the Flying Squirrel in his campaign, gathering endorsements, setting in motion a flurry of new initiatives like a makeover of the party's Web site, extolling his fund-raising prowess and lauding himself in a letter that ran eight pages.

In the letter in bold-faced, underlined, capital-letter fashion, Strine called himself, "COMMITTED . . . ENERGETIC . . . GENEROUS . . . ENTHUSIASTIC . . . OUTREACHING . . .  PRINCIPLED" with "Republican values [that] are Red, White, and Blue to the core."

Put the election this way. Cragg is standing for state chair. Strine is running for it. The Republicans seem poised to ratify Strine as the right man to run the party in the wilderness years.