Delaware: a sliver of a state with GOP stalwarts at stake

In the church basement that serves as St. Peter's Senior Center, where retirees gather for a 50-cent hot meal and free companionship, Democrat David Levinson takes the bingo caller's microphone and insists his race for a seat in the US Senate will be ''the national referendum on Reaganomics.''

Across town, incumbent Republican Sen. William Roth shuffles through fallen leaves at a Du Pont research facility, attempting to simultaneously hand out leaflets and shake hands. As the Senate half of the tax-cutting team of Kemp-Roth, he says the real issue will be his service to Delawareans.

Democrats nationwide are trying to hang the President's economic policies around the necks of Republican incumbents. Delaware, a mere shaving of a state wedged between Maryland and the Atlantic, exemplifies how local issues such as service to constituents complicate Democratic efforts to turn Nov. 2 into a Reaganomics referendum.

To Democrats, Delaware is a tempting target. One of the state's senators, and its lone representative, are up for reelection. Both are Republicans unabashedly aligned with the White House: Senator Roth, whose name is attached to part of the President's economic package, and Rep. Thomas Evans, Reagan's spokesman and liaison in the House.

And Delaware has a long history of fierce political competition. Its highly educated voters - 15 percent of the country's graduate-level chemists live in Delaware, for instance - march back and forth across party lines with regularity. ''It dates back to the Civil War. Delaware never could decide which side to be on,'' says a Republican campaign aide.

But the state is so small (2,057 square miles) that mundane political tasks such as tracking down errant social security checks weigh more heavily than they do in the congressional races of many other states.

Senator Roth, an amiable man who campaigns with a noticeable lack of charisma , was first elected to Congress in 1966. Since then he has maintained an efficient constituent-services machine and an image of integrity - though Democrats claim he is far more conservative than the most Delaware voters.

Ray Luckenbach, a Du Pont chemist, illustrates the Democrats' dilemma. Though he voted twice for Jimmy Carter, Mr. Luckenbach says he'll support Roth on Nov. 2: ''I know I have somebody I can talk to if I need something done,'' he says.

Roth's opponent is David Levinson, a wealthy real-estate developer who has toured the state since 1980, berating the Kemp-Roth tax cut at every chance. He outlines his own economic plan: a mortgage-bond program, a computerized jobs bank, a tougher line with trading partners, and a final tax-cut installment skewed more toward the middle class.

''We have a Republican incumbent who symbolizes Reaganomics,'' says Levinson. ''People don't know his voting record.''

''Roth still has a safe lead,'' says a Delaware political analyst with connections in both parties, ''but remarkable strides have been made by Levinson.''

Delaware's other congressional race may be even closer. Rep. Thomas Evans says he has a safe lead, but some outside analysts, and Evans' challenger, State Treasurer Tom Carper, say the contest is now a dead heat.

''I'm not a rubber stamp for the President.'' insists Mr. Evans. But he doesn't try to hide his White House connections: ''I can do infinitely more for Delaware (than a Democrat),'' he says.

But Evans, though reelected in 1980 by a healthy margin, isn't all that personally popular, says one analyst who asked not to be named. A much-publicized sex scandal has further affected Evans's image.

Carper, on the other hand, is a young Vietnam veteran with a reputation as the leading Democratic vote-getter in Delaware. ''I think I've come to be regarded as a 'good government' candidate,'' says Carper. However, Carper's late start - he filed five minutes before the deadline - may work against him.

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