Tiny State's Titans Clash In Senate Race

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When Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper declared his plans to run for the U.S. Senate against five-term Sen. William V. Roth Jr., he made sure to stop by a middle school as part of his small state's traditional, three-county campaign- announcement tour last summer.

After all, Gov. Carper is best known in the First State for the education accountability package he promoted at Lewes Middle School that day and during much of his eight years as governor. With education a top priority among voters nationally, Mr. Carper, a Democrat, believes that issue will be key in helping him end the 30-year tenure of Sen. Roth, a popular and powerful Republican.

The two-term governor is considered the best hope Democrats have ever had to unseat Mr. Roth, and recent polls found the race too close to call.

But some political observers suggest Mr. Carper's education platform could cost him crucial support. His educator- accountability plan, which was modified after a nearly two-year debate, lost him the endorsement of the state's teachers' union, which had given him its nod in his past 10 political campaigns. Those contests stretched back to 1976, when he was elected state treasurer before going on to serve five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and being elected governor in 1992.

The accountability plan, which is set to go into effect in 2002, will tie at least 20 percent of teachers' and administrators' job evaluations to their students' test scores.

Teachers "felt many of the proposals Governor Carper made were not necessarily effective for students or supportive of teachers' needs in the classroom," said Mary Ann Pry, the president of the Delaware State Education Association, a National Education Association affiliate with 9,700 members. "Although they are aware Governor Carper agrees with our issues on the federal level, they did not feel he had earned their trust."

Mr. Carper, meanwhile, said he was not surprised by the lack of an endorsement, and stressed he would not retreat from his accountability initiative.

"When we pushed it hard for 18 months, we realized it might cost an endorsement" from the teachers' union, he said. "I'm convinced, ultimately, most educators will see what we're doing is good for kids and fair to them."

Ms. Pry said that the union's 12-member endorsement committee had come to agree with that conclusion after a lengthy discussion, but she noted that Gov. Carper's favorability rating with the union's members had been declining since 1996. Sen. Roth, meanwhile, had not had any relationship with the union until this year, she said, when he agreed to meet with the endorsement committee. The union declined to endorse him, nevertheless.

Some observers, though, believe that despite Gov. Carper's loss of the union's backing, his accountability plan will, on balance, help him gain votes.

"This was a tremendous financial investment in education," including teacher-pay increases, said James R. Soles, a political science professor at the University of Delaware. "I think it's going to resonate well with some teachers and many voters."

Battle of Titans

Meanwhile, Sen. Roth, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is best known for his fiscal legislation, including the so-called Roth IRA. But, under term-limit rules imposed by Senate Republicans, he will have to give up his powerful committee chairmanship in two years.

"Roth's position as a senior chairman of a very powerful committee makes this a very significant race nationally," said Joseph A. Pika, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. "This is one of the very few times where we have two opponents who have been very senior and very popular politicians, and who have been operating on separate paths, face each other."

Age has become an undertone in the race as well, with the 53-year-old Gov. Carper calling for voters to look to the future, while the 79-year-old Sen. Roth is banking on his experience and clout in the Senate to keep him in office.

In February, Mr. Carper held an 11-point lead in opinion polls, but that lead diminished quickly.

Mr. Pika attributes that drop in part to the governor's education plans. In addition to approving the educator- accountability measure this past summer, the state legislature rolled back implementation of a plan Mr. Carper had backed to link student scores on state assessments to so-called high stakes for students. Many state residents feared that too many students would have to attend summer school, be held back a grade, or not receive a high school diploma under that program.

A Sept. 20 poll of 335 likely voters by the University of Delaware showed Mr. Carper barely ahead, 46 percent to 43 percent; the margin of error was 5 percentage points. Another survey that same day by the university showed both candidates with exceptionally high job-approval ratings of roughly 75 percent.

Despite his low-key style, Mr. Roth has become an institution in this state, where he often appears with his two pet St. Bernard dogs. In the Senate, he brings home the bacon through funding for environmental, defense, and other projects for the state.

In 1997, Sen. Roth pushed through a major tax-relief package that included significant higher education incentives. His list of K-12 achievements is quite short, though, in part because Sen. Roth believes education decisions should be a local priority, his campaign manager, Jo Anne Barnhart said. "What he's done really sits well with his philosophy about where federal education decisionmaking should be made," she said.

Still, Mr. Roth often visits schools and reads to students, she said, and when he does so, "he's genuinely interested in the kids—it's not a photo op."

Gov. Carper believes that's not enough.

"In Washington, Senator Roth's record suggests a benign neglect in education," Mr. Carper argued. As a governor-turned-senator, he said, he would respect the state's role and push for more flexibility, and funding, for federal programs.

Heading into the crucial final weeks of the campaign, Delaware residents are seeing a deluge of advertisements from business groups in favor of Sen. Roth, and Gov. Carper is running ads criticizing his opponent's education record. That's struck a new tone in this state of 700,000 people, which tends to favor neighborly politicians.

"We tend to be very polite and gentlemanly here in Delaware," Mr. Pika said. "Now, the tone is much sharper than in previous races."

Vol. 20, Issue 6, Page 8

Published in Print: October 11, 2000, as Tiny State's Titans Clash In Senate Race
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