Posted: Jan. 16, 2004
SNOOZING TOWARD THE PRIMARY
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper's voice is heard on
the radio a lot these days. Sometimes it is for a public service
spot, asking for blood donations, and sometimes it is a campaign
spot, asking his fellow Democrats to vote for Joseph I. Lieberman
Carper's split messages appear to reflect the
humdrum nature of Delaware politics right now -- not exactly riveted
on the presidential primary 18 days away on Tuesday, Feb. 3. You
would think Carper was asking the voters to give blood.
The election here follows Iowa's caucuses next
Monday and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 27 as
part of a cluster of seven states voting on the same day. Delaware
may be part of the early press of the presidential selection season,
but here the thrill is a yawn.
Among the eight Democratic candidates, only
Lieberman has been an eager suitor. He seems to care more about the
primary than Delaware does. His major competition appears to be
coming not so much from his rivals themselves, but from ambivalence
about the voting and the national attention on Howard B. Dean,
Wesley K. Clark and the surges of John F. Kerry and John R. Edwards.
"It's hard to generate interest in primaries
in general," said Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker, a first-term
It is true. Primaries are unloved affairs --
the political equivalent of family feuds that force voters to choose
sides when they often would rather not. In the case of a
presidential primary like this one, Delaware voters in general have
not been invested in any candidate since U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden
Jr. decided not to run, so why mix it up when the party expects to
unite behind the nominee, anyway?
Most of the state's leading Democrats are
sitting this one out. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner has decided not to
endorse anyone. Biden has not ruled out an endorsement but seems
inclined not to. Baker is not endorsing.
Carper, of course, has committed to Lieberman.
Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell also are
backing Lieberman, tandem endorsements that have deprived the voters
of the spectacle of two rising Democrats on different sides. Now
that would have been worth watching.
Clark's campaign seems to be digging for
endorsements the hardest, announcing this week that former Gov.
Russell W. Peterson and former Mayor William T. McLaughlin signed
on. Of the 25 Democrats in the General Assembly, only seven have
lined up with candidates, dividing among Clark, Dean, Lieberman,
Richard A. Gephardt and Alfred C. Sharpton.
"People just aren't talking about it," said
state Sen. Nancy W. Cook, a Democrat who is staying on the
sidelines. "The debates have generated some interest, but if it's
filtering down, I haven't seen it."
Some of the reticence about the primary is
simply structural. Delaware has 518,249 registered voters, but not
even half of them can go to the polls next month.
The state's 224,497 Democrats, accounting for
43 percent of the electorate, can vote. The 173,812 Republicans who
represent 34 percent of the voters are skipping the primary because
President George W. Bush's re-nomination is uncontested. The
remaining 119,940 voters unaffiliated with a major party -- totaling
23 percent of the electorate -- are barred from primaries.
Toss into the mix Delaware's unfamiliarity
with presidential primaries -- this is only the state's third one
since switching away from caucuses -- and it is no wonder interest
is so low. Besides, it is too cold for a campaign, no matter what is
going on in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Turnout here is expected to be abysmal. In the
2000 presidential primary, it was 5 percent for the Democrats, when
about 11,000 of them voted in a contest that Al Gore Jr. won with 57
percent of the vote against Bill Bradley.
"I don't see a big turnout unless something
happens quickly. No one is talking about it, not even the
politicians," said James R. Soles, a University of Delaware
professor emeritus of political science.
Soles sees Lieberman, Dean and Clark in the
running here -- Lieberman because of the personal attention he has
paid and Dean and Clark because of the national coverage they have
received. Baker would not be surprised if Lieberman won with his
backing from Carper, Carney and Markell.
"The supporters of Lieberman are going to make
an all-out push, and they can do it," Baker said. "I don't think
endorsements mean that much, but it's the organization they can put
Based on the primary, the Democrats will award
delegates to candidates. Then they will hold a state convention to
vote on the makeup of their 23-member delegation to the national
nominating convention July 26-29 in Boston. Similarly, the
Republicans will have to decide who gets to be part of an 18-member
delegation to their national convention Aug. 30-Sept. 2 in New York
That is precious few people -- 23 Democrats
and 18 Republicans -- to send. The presidential primary may be
generating few sparks, but watch out. The politicians will be duking
it out big time for those delegate slots. That is what really
matters to them.
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