Posted: Nov. 20, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

With about two months to go before the presidential primary here, it appears to be dawning on Delaware Democrats that they really could have a say in their party's choice for the nomination.

Campaigns are stirring here and there by assigning operatives to the state. Endorsements are trickling in, and volunteers are choosing up sides.

State Treasurer Jack A. Markell, who is backing U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, has become invested enough in his candidate to take a van with six Delawareans to New Hampshire last weekend to help out with some door-to-door canvassing.

Wesley K. Clark, the retired general from Arkansas, is on the move here. His campaign announced endorsements Thursday from state Sen. David P. Sokola, former Democratic State Chairman Samuel L. Shipley and Charles J. Durante, the state party's parliamentarian.

Clark's campaign also has sent in John C. Oldfield from its headquarters in Little Rock to set up an organization, joining Lieberman as the only other candidate with a staff member to date. The campaign expects to hold a state tour Monday and Tuesday as part of a national "Race for America" drive -- without the candidate, although he is expected eventually.

There also are indications that U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri will establish a campaign presence in January. Volunteers for former Gov. Howard B. Dean of Vermont also have had meetings.

Put it all together with the showings of some of the candidates themselves, and it starts to look like a real live primary. Of the nine-member Democratic field, Lieberman has been here for public appearances, as has the Rev. Alfred C. "Al" Sharpton of New York, and U.S. Sen. John R. Edwards stopped by for a private fund-raiser.

"I'm pleased at the response we're hearing we're going to get. It's gratifying that people recognize Delaware as a microcosm and often a bellwether," said Democratic State Chairman Richard H. Bayard.

"I hope we get a lot of presidential candidates here, although it will never be as much as we'd like."

To be sure, it's not New Hampshire, the state that holds the glittery first-in-the-nation primary, but it's a start for a state that has struggled to get its own election up and running.

Delaware tried it in 1996 and 2000, only to be thwarted by New Hampshire, which objected because Delaware wanted to hold a second-in-the-nation primary four days later. Insisting on a week before any other state voted, New Hampshire slapped a candidate boycott on Delaware and had the clout to make it stick. This time around Delaware faced reality and gave New Hampshire its weeklong window.

The primary here is set for Tuesday, Feb. 3, the same day that voters go to the polls in Arizona, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina. Only Delaware Democrats will be voting. Republicans are skipping it because of the certainty of re-nominating President George W. Bush for a second term.

Delaware Republicans are setting up a campaign framework, however. U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the party's most prominent officeholder, is the chairman. There also has been a fund-raising effort, highlighted by first lady Laura Bush's visit earlier this month for a lunch at the Westover Hills home of MBNA President Charles M. Cawley.

For now, Lieberman's campaign is setting the pace. Lieberman, the 2000 vice presidential nominee, has the most personal appearances in this election cycle with three and the most high-profile endorsements with U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Markell. The campaign is bringing in Hadassah Lieberman, the candidate's wife, for her second visit this month on Monday.

Lieberman's strategy has worked here before. In defiance of the New Hampshire quarantine in 1996, Republican Steve Forbes courted Delaware and was rewarded with a victory.

For a real taste of what a primary can be, Markell made a pilgrimage to New Hampshire and came away impressed with the vigor of the operations there, hundreds of volunteers hustling for votes. He knocked on doors for Lieberman and encountered something no Delaware politician ever has contemplated -- a winter campaign.

"It wasn't awful, but it was cold enough. I can't imagine what it's going to be like in late December, early January," Markell said.

It is unclear whether the experience left Markell with the presidential bug himself. Asked about it, he resorted to one of the best dodges there is. He laughed and let it go at that.