Posted: May 16, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republicans had a seismic shakeup at their convention, but it is going to be hard to tell. The reason is the party firmly reasserted its commitment to be what it has been philosophically.

The state GOP emerged from its sessions Friday and Saturday at Dewey Beach insistent on its self-image as a "Big Tent" of inclusion, a party that is centrist and pragmatic in the mold of U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, its most successful officeholder, who has been elected a lieutenant governor, governor and congressman and routinely polls 70 percent of the vote.

It is a party that has room for state Sen. Liane N. Sorenson, one of its leaders as the Senate minority whip, whose moderate politics suit her Newark-Hockessin district, and for state Rep. Joseph W. Booth, a conservative first-term legislator and Georgetown ex-mayor, whose rising-star status was recognized with a speaking role at the convention.

The Republicans' self-identity came into focus on two votes for national committeeman and national committeewoman, who along with the state chair are the party's top officials.

The posts went to John R. Matlusky and Priscilla B. Rakestraw, both grounded in the party's traditional approach. They turned back rivals seen as part of a drive to move the party rightward since the election of state Chairman Terry A. Strine a year ago.

Rakestraw, the national committeewoman since 1976, crushed Gretchen Ellixson, a Brandywine Hundred Republican, by a vote of 90-23. Matlusky, the state vice chairman, put together a campaign in 24 hours to stop Thomas H. Draper, a Rehoboth Beach businessman, by a vote of 65-48.

Rakestraw won the old-fashioned way, one telephone call at a time to the Republican State Committee members who decide on the national committee members. Matlusky rode a backlash against Strine and Draper, whose surprise candidacy a week before the vote staggered the revered W. Laird Stabler Jr., the national committeeman since 1985, and sent him to the sidelines.

Matlusky's election also was a coming-of-age for the Republicans' next generation. His most public allies were Thomas S. Ross, the New Castle County co-chairman, and Paul J. Pomeroy, a Newark legislative candidate.

A loss could have finished all three of them. Instead, the victory became a declaration.

"This reinforces what Delaware Republicans are all about. We're sort of moderate, we're not extreme conservative, we're not extreme liberal. We're still there -- even with the younger kids," said state Rep. Roger P. Roy, whose district lies in the Pike Creek Valley-Hockessin area.

After such crucial votes Friday, the session Saturday for endorsing statewide candidates seemed anticlimactic.

The convention-goers appeared to be exhausted. They barely were roused by a Mardi Gras-like demonstration for William Swain Lee, the candidate for governor, with a band playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" and marchers strutting with umbrellas and distributing beads.

The frivolity had the good sense to stop before anyone pulled up a shirt, New Orleans-style, to bare what was there, although that certainly would have got people going again. Hey, it was in Dewey, after all.

The party endorsed a credible slate, going with Castle unopposed for the Congress, Lee for governor with 76 percent of the vote over Michael D. Protack, James P. Ursomarso for lieutenant governor with 84 percent over Tyler P. Nixon, and state Rep. David H. Ennis for insurance commissioner with 69 percent over Jeffrey E. Cragg.

The candidates who were not endorsed have the right to seek nomination in the primary election Sept. 11, although Nixon said immediately he would drop out.

There were no surprises, beyond some pre-convention speculation that the endorsement for insurance commissioner might go more than one ballot. Candidates need at least 60 percent of the vote to be endorsed, and Ennis, with a lot of help from other legislators, nailed it the first time over Cragg, a fellow Brandywine Hundred Republican who is the New Castle County co-chairman.

No surprises did not mean no anxiety. Politics is so unpredictable, as the showdown over national committeeman demonstrated, that even Castle had his worries -- and he was running unopposed.

"You start sweating. You get a little nervous about it," Castle said.

The Republicans have themselves a full statewide ballot, sparing them from any uncomfortable scrambles for a walk-on candidate, as the Democrats are facing for the congressional race. The rest of the Democratic ticket will be filled by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and the winner of a primary for insurance commissioner between Matthew P. Denn and Karen Weldin Stewart.

Like the vote for national committeeman, the endorsed slate upped the profile of a  member of the next generation by including Ursomarso, the Wilmington chairman from the Union Park car dealership family with national party ties.

Ursomarso's election sparked the most imaginative cheer of the convention, a spontaneous chant that began with a caller shouting "Urso!" and the crowd answering "Marso!"

Even with the next generation coming on, the Republican Party emerged looking very white, very male, very non-ethnic, although there were signs of potential change. Castle took the lead by turning over his nominating and seconding speeches to Marlene B. Elliott, who was the state director for the late U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., and Ernesto B. Lopez, a candidate for New Castle County Council president.

This Republican convention appears destined to be remembered for what it meant as a course correction. "A lot of us had butterflies. It was more rocky than usual. Usually we just rubber-stamp," said state Rep. Deborah H. Hudson, whose district includes Greenville and Hockessin.

As Matlusky and his allies seized the day, they at least momentarily eclipsed state Sen. Charles L. Copeland, who is a du Pont family member from Chateau Country and appealed to the conservatives as a future national committeeman. Copeland did not have a speaking role at the convention, although oddly enough he gave the keynote address in March at the state Libertarian Party's convention.

As the state GOP left Dewey Beach late Saturday afternoon, the Republican probably imperiled the most was state Chairman Terry Strine, the ex-Republican-independent-Democrat-independent from Pennsylvania.

Despite Strine's repeated protests, he was regarded widely as aiding and abetting the conservative candidacies of Ellixson and Draper in a slap at Rakestraw and Stabler. It did not help that his peripatetic voter-registration history was exposed the week of the convention.

Strine is halfway through his first two-year term, which expires next May. If he wants another one, there is a foolproof way to silence his nay-sayers. He can do it by delivering the state for George W. Bush and electing a Republican governor.

Otherwise, there already are the stirrings of a search for a new chair. One Republican explained what could happen to Strine because of the votes on Rakestraw and Matlusky and the one next year for state chair.

"Strike one, strike two, and next May is strike three."