Posted: June 17, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Amid the gold and crystal and Old World splendor of the Hotel du Pont's Gold Ballroom, there was a mood that brought back the old times, back to the days when the Republican Party was the only one in Delaware worth belonging to.

The host for this enchanted evening Thursday in Wilmington was former Gov. Pierre S. du Pont, the two-term Republican who brought his party to power, and even Glenn C. Kenton, who was his secretary of state, and William E. Manning, who was his chief of staff, were there to keep the illusion alive.

The event  was the Pete du Pont Freedom Dinner, a starry fund raiser for the state Republicans, and the keynoter was another reminder of what once was. He was the resilient Newt Gingrich, the former speaker who was a seminal figure of the Republican Revolution.

Someone in the crowd actually was wearing a "Reagan '84" political button.

"Is this not a reunion? A return of the Pete du Pont imagination group," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman then and the Republican national committeewoman now.

Only it was not 1985 and the final gleaming days of du Pont's administration. It is 2005. The ex-governor at 70 qualifies without question as a senior statesman, Kenton and Manning are prospering lawyers, and the Democrats run this state.

Time moves on. The Republicans here are perplexed about how to end their erosion, and Gingrich is trying to reinvent himself. Are there second acts in American politics? Gingrich is on his third.

The man from Georgia arrived in the Congress in 1978 as a conservative revolutionary, bent on overthrowing the Democratic establishment, and he did. It made him the speaker in 1995, but Gingrich turned out to be better as a flamethrower than as a keeper of the flame. He got tangled up in ethics and resigned, prime minister-like, from the House of Representatives after the Republicans lost seats in 1998.

Now Gingrich is setting fires again, a happy political arsonist. If he was after the Democratic establishment before, he has no time now for the Republican establishment that holds the White House and the Congress.

"We have to distinguish between presiding over the mess and changing it. People elect majorities to get things fixed," Gingrich said. "If we have any purpose as a party, it should be that 'we' means the people and not the bureaucracies."

If Gingrich sounded like a presidential candidate, maybe he is. "I think he's going to run. I'm not sure he thinks he can win, but he thinks he can dominate the debate," Kenton said.

Running for president would account for Gingrich's willingness to spend an evening in Delaware, but there is more to it. He and Pete du Pont go way back, and Gingrich acknowledged he could never say no to an invitation from his old comrade-in-arms.

Back in 1979 when du Pont was in his first term as governor, he formed GOPAC, a political action committee dedicated to building the party by electing more Republican legislators around the country. It also was dedicated to building du Pont's profile around the country so he could run for president in 1988.

As du Pont came close to entering the race, he needed to turn over GOPAC to someone else. According to Kenton, the first choice was Richard B. Cheney, the vice president who was then a Wyoming congressman in the House leadership, but Cheney was unable to do it. Next du Pont and his advisers thought about Gingrich, a backbencher whom they knew also had thoughts of building the party by creating a farm team.

As Kenton recalled, Gingrich was practically crying when they asked. "He said, 'This will save 10 years,'" Kenton said. It was 1985, and 10 years later, Gingrich was running the House.

If nothing else Thursday evening, the Delaware Republicans proved they still know how to raise money. The event drew about 250 people, including six "Gold Sponsors" who wrote checks for $10,000 a pop and 55 "Silver Sponsors" who contributed $1,000 each. The cheap tickets went for $125 a person.

Political money is worthless without candidates to spend it on. Pete du Pont's ambition for a Republican farm team has foundered in his home state. There was but a sparse showing of potential statewide candidates at the dinner -- state Sen. John C. Still III, the minority leader, and state Sen. Charles L. Copeland, a du Pont family member, both of whom are mentioned for governor in 2008, and Robert I. Hicks, the former New Castle County auditor who may run for state treasurer in 2006.

The Republicans are up against a lineup of Markell-Carney-Denn-Coons, the Democrats' rising generation already holding the second tier of political offices.

As if the bar was not high enough, Still, Copeland and Hicks consider themselves conservatives, a complication in a state that prefers its politics in the middle. Earlier in the week, Still and Copeland voted on the losing side against embryonic stem cell research, an issue that has made a moderate hero out of U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the seven-term Republican, nationwide and here at home.

For all of Pete du Pont's conservative stripes today, he governed from the pragmatic center, and Delaware approved.

That was then. It still is now.