Posted: Nov. 24, 2003
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
Wesley K. Clark's "getting-to-know-you" tour
and Joseph I. Lieberman's "we-were-here-first" outfit converged
Monday evening at Prices Corner for a meeting of the Democratic
Women's Club of Delaware, the first time this primary season that
more than one Democratic presidential operation had a serious
presence at a single event.
Two campaigns. One turf. Only in Delaware
would nothing happen.
These out-of-state operations appear to have
gotten the word about the way politics is supposed to be played here
-- without the rough stuff. Delaware voters are treating the
campaigns more like guests than political combatants and expect them
to behave accordingly.
The Clark campaign arrived at the club meeting
with an RV -- a "Wes-abago," the staffers for the retired general
called it -- as part of a daylong ramble through Kent County and New
Castle County. This was the inaugural Delaware event for the
campaign, which handed out mini-Clark bars as a calling card.
The Lieberman operation brought in Hadassah
Lieberman, the wife of the Connecticut senator, for a day of
campaigning that took her through all three counties and concluded
at the women's club, where she met about 50 people at a dinner
meeting held at Lamberti's Cucina.
The closest the two camps came to mixing it up
at the club meeting was Lieberman's arrival, when the Clark campaign
offered her a candy bar. She declined. "I didn't think it was a good
photo op," Lieberman quipped. "I've sworn off any candy for now."
Delaware's presidential voting is set for
Tuesday, Feb. 3, the same day as six other states are scheduled to
vote a week after New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. Only
Delaware Democrats will be going to the polls to sort out what is
currently a nine-candidate field, because the Republicans already
are set on nominating President George W. Bush for a second term.
This is Delaware's first serious try at
holding a primary. Still, with only about two months to go before
the vote, the Democratic candidates have been slow to get started
here, mostly because they were waiting for U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden
Jr. to decide whether he was going to run. When he said in August he
was sitting this one out, it left Delaware up for grabs.
Lieberman was the first to arrive and quickly
scooped up endorsements from U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Lt. Gov.
John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell, but since then,
only a handful of Democrats have committed to candidates.
One of them is state Sen. David P. Sokola, a
Pike Creek Valley legislator who signed up with Clark and helped to
pass out the candy bars. "It feels like Halloween again," he joked.
Not just the candidates have been slow to get
moving. So have the voters. When the Clark RV parked in Newark
alongside the University of Delaware mall, it appeared to attract
less attention than the grand opening of Dunkin' Donuts several
blocks away on Main Street.
In fact, the women's club was perhaps the
first event in Delaware to take on the feel of a real campaign. With
Clark's operation politely staying outside, it was Hadassah
Lieberman's show inside. She shook a lot of hands and spoke briefly,
seemingly unmindful of the occasional Clark bar lying around or a
discreet smattering of buttons for former Vermont Gov. Howard B.
Her talk reprised the "Only in America" pride
of her husband's 2000 vice presidential candidacy, which made him
the first Jewish American to run on a national ticket. She discussed
how important she regarded this campaign from her perspective as a
naturalized citizen, born in what is now the Czech Republic -- even
if there was something of a glitch in her delivery.
"I greatly appreciate that you come together
right before Thanksgiving. I say that as a woman who also doesn't
usually do this type of thing the Monday before Thanksgiving," she
said to knowing laughter.
"My Joey said, you've got to go to Delaware,"
she continued. "I come to you today, proud to be married to a man
running for the United States Senate -- president! That was a
Freudian slip. I say that as a naturalized citizen. That is a big
deal for me to say that before Thanksgiving."
The women's club was not taking sides. "It's a
primary, so anybody's welcome. Nobody's made a decision yet. Mrs.
Lieberman is a lovely lady. This is a forum for her to come and meet
the women," said Joanne C. Finnigan, the club president.
The neutrality was so entrenched that Victoria
"Vikki" Bandy, the 2002 campaign manager for state Sen. Karen E.
Peterson of Stanton, wore both Dean and Clark buttons. There was no
sign yet of a new campaign button for Peterson, who is considering a
primary against Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.
What is happening, however, is that Delaware
voters want the candidates here. Clark's campaign had to fend off
questions about when their candidate would arrive and promised that
he would. Hadassah Lieberman made a big deal out of the multiple visits
that she and her husband have made here and announced he would be
back next month.
It matters. "I think it's great Delaware is
getting the attention. I really appreciate the commitment Lieberman
has made," said state Sen. Patricia M. Blevins, an Elsmere Democrat
who is undeclared and attended the women's club meeting. "It's nice
being a mini-New Hampshire."
Seeing the candidates is only the first step,
of course. Some day the voters may even get comfortable enough to
ask them questions. It happens all the time in New Hampshire.
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