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. Dean.

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.