Posted: Aug.29, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

This is not New Hampshire. Millard Roberts, a janitor at the Greyhound Bus Terminal, looked toward the Wilmington Riverfront on Friday afternoon to see a police presence and some television cameras surrounding a knot of people and had no idea what was happening.

"I wondered, what's going on? There must be a drug bust," he said.

Roberts would have known right away if he lived in New Hampshire, the state that hosts the first presidential primary and has made a cottage industry out of it. Cops, cameras and crowds mean a candidate sighting -- in this case, U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat and 2000 vice presidential candidate, who became the first contender to campaign here for the 2004 primary scheduled for next Feb. 3.

If Roberts did not know what to make of Lieberman, the candidate knew what to make of Roberts and signed an autograph for him. Lieberman seemed undaunted by the prospect that he may have to educate Delaware about the primary one voter at a time.

It may take that. Lieberman's visit here showed that Delaware is not exactly up to speed when it comes to the presidential primaries that have yet to become a staple of local politics.

Lieberman probably saw more reporters than voters. His trip was scheduled for getaway day before the Labor Day weekend, when conventional wisdom says the public does not pay attention to politics. The News Journal buried word of his arrival on page B-6 for the sort of campaign kickoff that would have caused palpitations in New Hampshire.

Lieberman came in to collect key endorsements from U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell. He did, but there was a hitch here, too. Carney was the only one who delivered his support in person.

It was known in advance that Markell would be traveling, but Carper was a no-show because of plane trouble in Ohio, where he had gone for a fund-raiser to take advantage of his ties as an Ohio State University graduate.

"I'm just glad that one of the three of them is on the ground," Lieberman quipped.

Still, he did get the endorsements -- a coup amounting to three out of the five statewide Democratic officials. Of the others, U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. has said he is leaning toward backing U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner is staying out of it for now.

Lieberman said nice things about Biden and Minner, anyway. Whether he did it because it was his nature or because he was briefed, it meshed with the genial politics that voters expect here. He thanked Biden for not running for president -- "now I don't have to throw away all those 'Joe 2004' bumper stickers" -- and described himself and Minner as "kindred spirits."

Mostly what was important was that Lieberman came. The last time a presidential candidate really courted Delaware, it was Steve Forbes, running for the 1996 Republican nomination, and he won. It gave him a little bit of a bounce, although nothing like what he needed to stop the party from going with Bob Dole, as it eventually did.

This was Lieberman's second visit to Delaware in the campaign cycle, following an appearance in December at a fund-raiser for Minner. He also was the first candidate to arrive since Biden announced on Aug. 11 he would not run for president, opening up the state to the nine-candidate Democratic field wanting to deny a second term to Republican President George W. Bush.

"I intend to come back here a lot," Lieberman said. "I'm here to say to the people of Delaware, you really count."

The candidate explained that Delaware is part of his campaign strategy. The state is one of seven scheduled to vote on Feb. 3, after the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27 lead off the presidential selection process.

Lieberman said he targeted Feb. 3 as his "breakthrough day" because of the expectations of success for Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in Iowa and Kerry in New Hampshire. This was before former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean surged to formidability in the early states.

Delaware has not had much experience with presidential primaries. Through 1992, it held caucuses, and then it ran into trouble with New Hampshire when it tried primaries.

Delaware wanted to hold its election on the Saturday following the Tuesday that New Hampshire voted, but New Hampshire was so protective of its signature status that it insisted upon every other state waiting at least a week. It demanded that the candidates boycott Delaware in 1996 and 2000 and had the clout to make most of them listen.

Delaware faced reality and gave New Hampshire its seven days in the sun. Now that the candidates can come here, the state has to figure out how to make them want to come.

If there is a learning curve for Delaware, there is also one for the candidates. Lieberman already showed signs of getting the hang of it. When he came here in December, he greeted the state treasurer as Jack "Markle."

Now with the endorsement, Lieberman is clear as a bell when he says "Markell."