Roth Vs. Carper In Delaware: Two Big Fish In A Small State

Posted: July 19, 2000

For such a small state, Delaware has produced more than its share of political heavyweights: Joe Biden, Bill Roth, Pete du Pont, Mike Castle and Tom Carper, Republicans and Democrats alike. But the odd thing is that they've almost never run against each other. And it hasn't been an accident.

For one big guy to challenge another violates the state's rules of engagement. This is a place where civility rules, familiarity breeds deference, and voters, knowing how easy Delaware is to ignore, value the clout that an experienced, well-known politician can bring.

That's what makes the current Senate race in Delaware so unusual. Two of the stars are doing battle. Carper, the popular Democratic governor barred by law from seeking a third term, is trying to oust Roth, the equally popular, five-term Republican incumbent.

It is a race with one overarching question: whether - to use the kind of language that makes Delawareans comfortable - it's time to thank Roth for a nice career, give him a gold watch (so to speak) and ask him to move on.

Or as the rest of us would put it, whether he's getting too old.

Roth, who turns 79 on Saturday, ranks third on the Senate's age list, trailing only Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd (who is running again) and just ahead of Jesse Helms and Ernest Hollings. By the end of his next term, Roth would be 85.

This being Delaware, age is not an issue a candidate can dare raise directly. Launching his campaign Monday, Carper devoted most of his speech to his record as governor, which includes education reform, farmland preservation, health-care improvements and seven straight years of tax cuts.

But he also mentioned that the state needs "energetic new leadership in Washington," that this election "is about the future, not the past" and that Roth should be congratulated for having served in Congress "more than a third of a century, through the tenure of no less than seven presidents."

Earlier, former Gov. Russell Peterson, 83, introduced Carper as a man of "stamina, energy, perseverance and mental alertness." In an interview, Peterson said, "When you have a choice between someone who'll be 85 and someone who's 53 [Carper], and who's done all that he has at such an age, you make the decision on that basis. Bill Roth is not in his prime anymore. He knows he isn't. I know I'm not."

But there is, of course, a flip side to age. It's called seniority, and it's allowed Roth to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, where he hasn't behaved as if he's ready to be put out to pasture.

He can, in fact, argue that his current term has been his most productive. He's helped give taxpayers a modest tax credit for college tuition, launched a reform-producing investigation of the Internal Revenue Service and sired the Roth IRA, the wildly popular retirement savings vehicle that allows individuals to put away after-tax money and have it grow tax-free.

In 1981, there was the landmark Kemp-Roth tax cut, the signature piece of economic legislation of the Reagan years. Last week, the senator broke with the GOP leadership and proposed his own version of a government-administered drug benefit for Medicare recipients. This week, he's at the center of the marriage penalty debate.

"Let me make it perfectly clear," Roth said last month, when he opened his campaign in the company, as usual, of his St. Bernard, Wilhelm IV. "I intend to use my seniority, my position and, yes, my power, for the benefit of the men, women and children [of Delaware]."

State Republican Chairman Basil Battaglia is upbeat as well: "I understand that Carper has nothing else to run on, but I don't believe age is going to be a question in the voters' mind. Bill Roth is very active in Congress and very influential for Delaware. He's not resting on his laurels. The people know that he gets results."

How it will all turn out is anyone's guess. Each man has universal name recogniton and approval ratings in the 70s, about as close to unanimity as you get in politics.

Polls show the race virtually even. Roth has more money. Neither man is accustomed to losing.

It figures to be a close race and, this being Delaware, a well-behaved one.

Larry Eichel's column appears on Wednesdays and Fridays. His e-mail address is leichel@phillynews.com

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