Posted: Oct. 29, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

William Swain Lee will not be running for governor in 2004, after all. He will be replaced by Bill Lee, who is exactly like the original candidate except shorter by eight letters.

The identity makeover, something of a Delaware version of switching to earth tones, was prompted by a poll conducted late last month for Lee, regarded as all but certain to be the Republican nominee against Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat.

"Bill Lee runs better than William Swain Lee. I have no idea why that is," Lee said.

Still, any edge is welcome against an incumbent who has won three statewide races -- two for lieutenant governor and one for governor -- and has the benefit of occupying the state's most prestigious office.

Like any campaign poll, this one taken by Neil Newhouse, a respected Republican pollster, is a closely guarded secret, its findings doled out selectively.

It means there is no way of knowing whether the poll-takers additionally tested how Lee would do by changing his name to Robert E. Lee, Bruce Lee or Wen Ho Lee, and whether they polled a sizable sample about it or simply asked Clifford G. Lee, the Republican state representative who has been winning elections in Sussex County since 1990 by running as "Biff."

Bill Lee tentatively is set to declare his candidacy on Nov. 11, when he will make four stops on the regulation all-county swing with appearances in Wilmington and Middletown in New Castle County, Dover in Kent County and Georgetown in Sussex County.

It will be his second bid for the governorship after coming within 46 votes of the 2000 nomination, which John M. Burris won instead. Burris did not leave Lee much to build upon -- losing to Minner in all but five of the state's 41 representative districts to carry only Republican strongholds in Brandywine Hundred, Chateau Country, Hockessin and Pike Creek Valley.

No doubt Lee will talk up his education -- Wilmington Friends School, Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania law school -- along with his military service as a Marine and his 22 years as a judge, including the murder trial of Thomas J. Capano that made a household name out of William Swain Lee, or was it Bill Lee?

In any event, Lee's background elicited an "extremely positive" response on the poll, according to Republican State Chairman Terry A. Strine, who says he did not personally review the results but was briefed about them.

Lee also can be expected to focus on the status of education, the environment and jobs -- flashpoints that he said were detected by the poll and confirmed what he already suspected about Minner's standing.

"An incumbent has to give you a chance to win. Aside from balancing the budget -- which is a constitutional requirement -- the governor hasn't done much," Lee said. "If we get out and do our job, we win. Unless we get the message out, the governor does all right. When we get the message out, it's a huge difference."

Minner's camp was unimpressed.

"Obviously it looks like Bill Lee is the Republican nominee. I expect he will put together a competitive campaign committee. We'll do the same, and everybody will be polling between now and when we do the poll that means something -- the poll on Election Day," said Robert L. Byrd, a lobbyist and key campaign strategist for the governor.

Democratic State Chairman Richard H. Bayard panned the Republican optimism emanating from Lee's poll.

"You just wonder who these people are they talked to. Are they former Delawareans who live in Florida? It just sounds like standard fund-raising hype to me. His campaign kickoff is in two weeks, and he wants people to think he has a shot so they'll give him money," Bayard said.

"I  give him poetic license. He's got an uphill battle."

Lee did follow up the poll with two "Dear Republican" letters, one sent to potential contributors and another to potential delegates to the Republican state endorsing convention in the spring. He described the polling as "very encouraging," and he also announced some of his chief backers.

In addition to former Gov. Pierre S. du Pont and Republican National Committeeman W. Laird Stabler Jr., whose support has been public since December, Lee listed U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle and Republican National Committeewoman Priscilla B. Rakestraw.

"Castle and Rakestraw are huge statements," Lee said. Their support completes the commitments from the party's top-tier leadership except for Strine, who has to remain neutral until the endorsing convention.

That message, however, is being disregarded by Michael D. Protack, the Yorklyn airline pilot with a dogged inclination to pursue the Republican nomination himself. "It's not going to work," he said. "I'm in it for the long haul."

As encouraged as Lee was by his poll, he said there was something that actually encouraged him more -- state Sen. Karen E. Peterson's interest in challenging Minner in a Democratic primary and the bite that Lee expects her to have.

"She brings the same ferocity to politics that the governor does," Lee said.

Lee predicts he will do well with his candidacy. "I don't think there's any great honor in getting nominated and then killed," he said.

So it is out with William Swain Lee and in with Bill Lee, his name replacement against the governor's knee replacement. It will be up to the voters to sort out what's in a name and what's in a knee.