Posted: June 3, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Every year the Delaware Republicans embrace their inner gentry -- all right, their outer gentry, too -- to host a perfectly mannered "Salute" at the Vicmead Hunt Club amid the graces of Chateau Country in the northern arc of the state.

It is the Republicans' premier event. They enjoy adult beverages and a generous raw bar beneath an oversized white tent. They engage Congressman Mike Castle, party leaders and elected officials in drawing room conversation. They listen to brief and witty speeches, which they acknowledge with the sort of muffled applause heard for good golf shots in professional tournaments.

A jolly "tally ho" ordinarily would not sound out of place. But not this year.

Elegance be damned, the Republicans put down their cocktail glasses Monday, even if the evening was made for garden parties, and discovered their inner political lust.

It was not exactly on the order of Barack Obama's rallies -- "Fired up! Ready to go!" -- but it was the Republicans' version of one.

Charlie Copeland did it. In the same way he is shedding the state Senate where he is the minority leader to run for lieutenant governor, Copeland slipped the decorous bonds of the environs of his own du Pont family to egg the Republicans into bouts of whistling, cheering and clapping that could have come out of a frog jumping contest.

It was like the movies with Whoopi Goldberg teaching the nuns to sing.

Copeland was supposed to perform the tedious formality of introducing upwards of 30 officeholders, party chiefs and candidates to the crowd of about 300 people, but he got everyone going by ridiculing the stock phrase, please hold your applause until the end.

"I don't want applause held to the end. I want you to celebrate every single elected official we've got here, every single candidate," Copeland declared.

They did. Copeland called out the names like a game show host -- "So let's start! We've got the auditor, Tom Wagner! Come on up here, Tom!" -- and the Republicans got stoked as Wagner and the others hot-footed it to a small, low platform and crowded behind Copeland.

People did hold their breath when John Brady, the insurance commissioner candidate running on the slogan, "Let the Big Guy Work for You," rumbled aboard, but the platform was up to it.

"Best Vicmead ever," said Priscilla Rakestraw, the national committeewoman.

"Everybody, we are back, we are back big time," said Laird Stabler, the incoming national committeeman.

"I was waiting for the Howard Dean squeal," quipped state Sen. John Still.

Never mind that the Republicans had to draft Bill Lee to have a candidate for governor. Never mind that they purged their state chair a month ago. Never mind that the Democrats have turned the Republicans' recent post-election conclaves into serial episodes of "The Night of the Living Dead."

The Republicans are feeling good about themselves again, as if they can re-create the glory when Pete du Pont and Mike Castle locked up the governorship for four terms from 1977 to 1993.

It it traceable to the efforts of Tom Ross, starting even before he was installed as the new state chair, to put together a ticket with Bill Lee, the retired judge who was the 2004 nominee, for governor and Copeland for lieutenant governor. Lee-Copeland officially took form at the state convention in early May. Although it was Lee who was on a family vacation at Disney World, the Republicans swooned as though they were the ones being told they would live happily ever after.

"It's been an extremely exciting five weeks and three days," Copeland said. "I think we're going to do it this time."

Despite the voter registration mounting in the Democrats' favor, the Republicans are banking on dissatisfaction with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the two-term Democrat, and on the Democrats' darkening primary for governor between Lt. Gov. John Carney and Treasurer Jack Markell.

The Republicans are doing more than wishful thinking. They took a step toward replenishing their depleted pool of operatives by hiring Seth Wimer, a 2007 Wesley College graduate who ran the College Republicans, as their executive director. The Brandywine Hundred Republicans opened a headquarters to try to stop their slide in an area they once owned. Don Carbaugh, the campaign treasurer for Lee, showed off an envelope fat with checks.

In addition, Castle gave the Republicans a lift by telling them John McCain is expected to travel here shortly because his presidential campaign believes Delaware is in play -- not an automatic state for the Democrats as it has been since 1992.

In keeping with all of these belated developments, Bill Lee was late arriving at Vicmead. He was hustling home from a Marine Corps reunion in California to make it, and his ride from the airport got bogged down in the nasty highway gridlock caused by a truck running over an errant mattress and catching fire.

It worked out, though. Waiting has become Lee's game. As a keyboard played the Marines' Hymn, he bounded up, slim and erect, looking as though he had been on a crash program to impress the reunion with his fitness, even if he was 72.

"Thank you for giving me this moment. I didn't get to give my acceptance speech at the convention. I didn't even know I'd been endorsed," Lee said.

"As many of you may know, I was in California this morning. I've had a 3,000-mile trip and the last 25 miles was the toughest. I'd like to blame the traffic jam on the governor -- oh heck, why not?"