The presidential race spotlight finally shines on tiny Delaware

Some candidates pinning hopes on moderate state that's usually overlooked

January 31, 2004|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW CASTLE, Del. - John Kerry was deep into his speech at a packed union hall last night, vowing to reorder President Bush's spending priorities and "go to the moon right here on earth," when an onlooker picked up the theme.

"Send him to the moon!" the man shouted, to roaring applause.

"I'm going to be content just to send him back to Texas," the Massachusetts senator told the crowd of 500 at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall.

"It'll cost us less, and we'll have more money to clean up your river. How about that?"

Delaware, a state with only 15 pledged delegates, is accustomed to being ignored during the presidential primary season.

But this year, as one of seven states with primaries or caucuses scheduled for Tuesday, the First State is getting a respectable share of attention from the Democratic candidates.

A showdown is expected between Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who has targeted the politically moderate state and garnered the endorsement of prominent state officials, and Kerry, the field's front-runner whom many voters are expected to support on the theory that he is the most likely to beat President Bush.

"It'll be a tug of war between the attractiveness of Kerry's juggernaut and the more moderate views of Lieberman that are consistent with Delaware tradition," predicts Joseph Pika, a political science professor at the University of Delaware.

Lieberman has visited Delaware four times since the fall, including a bowling alley here earlier in the day, and has scheduled visits for today, tomorrow and Tuesday. He has been telling voters that Delaware is first in his heart, and could provide him with his first primary victory, enabling him to stay in the race.

Key state Democrats have endorsed Lieberman, including Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Lt. Gov. John Carney and Jack Markell, the state treasurer. Early on he began running statewide radio ads.

But Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. effusively introduced Kerry last night, while stopping short of an outright endorsement. And the most recent poll of 600 likely voters, conducted on Wednesday and Thursday by the American Research Group, shows Lieberman trailing Kerry 27 percent to 16 percent.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was close behind at 14 percent, followed by Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, at 9 percent and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark at 8 percent. The poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, showed that roughly a quarter of the voters were undecided.

Sam Hoff, a political science professor at Delaware State University in Dover, said Delaware could be "a momentum builder or a viability check, or both."

"For John Kerry, it would show his appeal, not only in the Northeast but in what I call the Mason-Dixon region.

"But it will also be a viability check for Lieberman. He has identified Feb. 3 as a critical date and has all but said that will be the check to see if he will continue. Does he have the chance to become the nominee? Sooner or later you have to win a primary."

Dean and Clark both have had campaign organizations in the state for months. Neither they nor Edwards have visited the state, however. The only other candidate who has done that is the Rev. Al Sharpton, who plans a second visit today. The ARG poll showed him winning just 1 percent of voters.

Delaware has picked the presidential winner in 12 of the last 13 elections. It has demographics that closely mirror the nation's as a whole and thus considers itself a bellwether.

But its lack of experience with full-fledged primaries clouds the picture.

The state moved from the caucus system to primaries in 1996. But in both 1996 and 2000, its primaries were a flop because they were scheduled so close to New Hampshire's that candidates were loath to take the time to campaign here. As a result, turnout was far below the national average.

"This is the first time we'll be seeing a real Democratic primary in the state," said James R. Soles, a retired professor of political science at the University of Delaware, adding that health care and the economy, as in New Hampshire, will be the most prominent issues here.

Delaware is a difficult place to campaign, Pika said, because voters respond to the same kind of person-to-person contact as in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But this year, with seven contests on the same day, it's difficult for the candidates to conduct that kind of retail campaigning.

And with no Delaware-based television stations - only the expensive Philadelphia and Baltimore markets plus Salisbury, Md., are available - it's difficult to run effective campaign ads.

At the union hall last night where Kerry gave voters a rare glimpse of a live candidate, Edward Mendez, 63, a retired oil worker from New Castle, responded to the senator's message. "I think he probably has the best chance of beating Bush," Mendes said. "He seems to understand what the American people want."

At Libby's Restaurant in Wilmington, where Lieberman canceled a visit Wednesday because of a snowstorm, waitress Charlene Ralston said she likes Dean, but also Kerry "because he said Bush is for the privileged.

"We're really feeling it on the lower end," she said. "We have an expression, `Nobody's eating around here.' There's not much to feed on for us bottom feeders. Dean I like because he's outspoken, but Kerry is more electable because he's more well-spoken."

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