Balancing conscience, politics Delaware Rep. Castle is key GOP undecided

December 14, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ELSMERE, Del. -- At the Elsmere Christmas Parade yesterday, the Hit Squad steppers clattered down the route in tap shoes, girls in blue-spangled vests twirled to a heavy percussion version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and Rep. Michael N. Castle waved to the crowd from the smack-dab center of the road.

It seemed like an apt place for him to be.

As the Delaware Republican ponders his vote on the impeachment of President Clinton -- he remains one of a handful of lawmakers undecided as the House prepares to vote next week -- he finds himself walking down the equivalent of Congress' double-yellow line.

"I got asked to be on every single Sunday talk show," said Castle, who is considered a leader of moderate Republicans in the House. "I told my chief of staff, 'What am I going to do, argue with myself?' "

Instead, Castle showed up in the cold drizzle for the annual parade, joining Clydesdale horses and policemen in Santa hats. There, spectators illustrated the great divide he faced: One screamed, "Impeach!" another yelled, "No, no, no!" and a third smiled from a Lion's Club car and warned, "Be careful how you vote next week."

"That's exactly how it splits around here," said Castle, laughing grimly at the predicament of the undecideds. "Politicians have a way of making decisions and being very black and white about them. I tell you, I won't. I'll still have doubts about it even after I vote."

Like the two dozen or so other wavering House Republicans who hold Clinton's fate in their hands, Castle is balancing conscience with the political fallout of the vote.

"Everyone thinks about the politics of this, don't let them tell you otherwise," he said.

Many fence-sitters have their sights set on higher political office -- like Maryland's Constance A. Morella, the 8th District Republican representative who is eyeing a Senate bid in 2000, and some of the seven undecided New Yorkers who could join the run for retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's seat. Several Republicans are nervous about a conservative attack in the next election for a "no" vote on impeachment. Facing pressure from the White House as well as their Republican colleagues, many say they are torn as to what move to make.

Secure seat

Castle's fate probably is not as tenuous as that of his colleagues. In this largely Democratic state, Castle continues to win re-election easily, representing all of Delaware as its only House member. But the 59-year-old congressman remains popular in part by breaking with his party, fighting for domestic program funds and backing Democratic initiatives on crime and the environment.

Clinton picked up 52 percent of the vote in Delaware in 1996, compared to Bob Dole's 37 percent. Even with the state's Democratic leanings, voters here often ignore party affiliation: Castle, a former governor, and current Democratic Gov. Tom Carper traded offices in 1992. Delaware is represented in the Senate by one Democrat and one Republican.

In the House, Castle attends the "Tuesday lunch bunch" -- weekly gatherings of Republican moderates -- and his experience in statewide office makes him something of an elder statesman in that group.

While Castle said Clinton can do nothing to affect his vote now ("Not even hearing him say, 'I lied,' " he said), he cannot help but watch the moves of fellow moderates. "Hearing that [New York Republican Rep.] Amo Houghton is voting against impeachment, that influenced me," he said. "I have a lot of respect for Amo."

Just yesterday, more undecided moderates were calling Castle at home for guidance. And in recent days, he has received calls from high-ranking White House officials (he won't say whom). But Castle believes this decision cannot be lobbied in traditional fashion.

"Normally there are promises for a road or a campaign stop, but not this time," he said. "Nobody's even trying to make those deals."

In Elsmere, a town of about 6,000 just south of Wilmington, issues such as how to get the fake plastic elf ears to stay on the children marching with the Greenhills Lion's Club were of far greater concern than presidential matters. Parade-goers expressed general impeachment-fatigue, and many simply wished the matter would go away.

"I didn't vote for Clinton, but it's too much time and effort wasted on this," said Margaret Kita, 54, as children dressed like angels passed in a flat-bed truck. "People want it to end."

But in this blue-collar crowd -- Elsmere is home to many workers from the nearby GM plant, which makes Chevy Malibus -- not everyone was so resigned. Some were eagerly awaiting Castle's vote.

"Impeach that son of a gun," said Gene Rose, 68, who drove up with the Korean War Veterans contingent in a car sporting an "Impeach Clinton" bumper sticker. He was certain Castle knew how strongly he felt: "I've called his office 100 times. He ought to know by now."

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