All eyes on Rep. Castle in Delaware while Republicans wait in the wings

And their prospects might be better than you think.

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Castle’s 2010 decision on whether to run for Senate, campaign for reelection or retire is the $64,000 question in Washington, and sources suggest it could be answered as soon as this week. He is not expected to seek his House seat again and has openly talked about recruiting a successor.

Conventional wisdom suggests any statewide race not involving the popular former governor will be very difficult for the GOP to win. But House Republicans aren’t ready to lie down and die, despite the early presence of former Lt. Gov. John Carney on the Democratic side.

Two prosecutors, a special election-winning state House member and a wealthy businessman top the list of potential Republican challengers, and the GOP says that, while a Castle-free race would be tough, the state’s blue hue might be overblown.

“Though Delaware’s political terrain presents challenges for Republicans, First Staters have rewarded Rep. Castle for his independent leadership time and time again,” said a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Andy Sere.

Republicans point out that, while the state went 62 percent for President Barack Obama in 2010, the Democratic ticket also featured a home-state senator as his vice presidential nominee. In 2004, Delaware went a relatively pedestrian 53 percent for a Northeastern senator in John Kerry (D-Mass.), and in 2000 it went 55 percent for Al Gore.

In addition, Republicans are keyed up about a trio of special-election victories in the state since the November general election, with all three in Democratic-majority districts and two replacing Democratic incumbents.

The winner of one of those special elections, state Rep. Tom Kovach, heads the list of potential candidates. He and businessman Anthony Wedo are considered the most likely prospects. Also on the GOP’s radar are a pair of reputable prosecutors in former U.S. Attorney Colm Connolly and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Ferris Wharton.

With Castle unlikely to run for reelection, the prospects have their eyes trained mostly on his House seat. Should Castle not run for Senate, though, their names could be drawn into in the state’s Senate race.

In that race, which became open when Sen. Joe Biden became vice president, appointee Ted Kaufman (D) isn’t running in 2010. Biden’s son, state Attorney General Beau Biden (D), is expected to return from a deployment to Iraq any day and could soon enter the Senate race.

But with that race in a longstanding holding pattern and Carney raising a solid $260,000 last quarter in the House contest, the more immediate concern is finding a candidate for the lower chamber.

David Hamrick, a spokesman for Carney, said Carney will take any opponent seriously.

“John isn’t speculating about which opponent he’s going to face,” Hamrick said. “He’s focused on building a campaign and engaging voters in a dialogue.”

And Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spokesman Shripal Shah said the party is “going to aggressively target this overwhelmingly Democratic district regardless of who the Republican nominee is next year.”

Kovach surprised political observers by winning a December special House election 51-49. The party went on to take a state Senate seat in a special election last month, and then two weeks ago held the state House seat formerly held by the winner of the second race.

“We’re not having to look under rocks for people to run in these races, like we did the last couple cycles,” said state GOP Executive Director Seth Wimer.

Potential candidate Wedo is a restaurant executive who sold his company to Boston Market. He recently became more active in state GOP politics and would bring substantial personal wealth to the race — a plus in the Philadelphia media market.

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“If something happened with the seat and the party approached me, I certainly would have to consider it,” Wedo said. “I decided about a year ago that it’s time to step up and get in the mix and help out, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Wedo and Kovach were both deferential to Castle and declined to talk openly about their interest in his seat. Castle’s support and blessing would play a huge role in determining whom the party lines up behind in the race.

Kovach called himself a “Mike Castle Republican.”

“I think he could really get behind a similarly minded candidate,” Kovach said. “I think he would have significant influence over potential candidates here in Delaware.”

Castle’s office did not comment for this story.

While those two appear good fits for the GOP, the party’s ideal candidate might be something closer to attorneys Connolly and Wharton. Connolly is well-known, and Wharton’s 47.5 percent showing against Beau Biden in the politically difficult 2006 attorney general race is still fresh in people’s minds.

As big fish go, though, Connolly could be difficult to lure into the political world. He said it’s “not something I’m focused on.”

And Wharton would likely be more tempted to run for attorney general again if Beau Biden opts to run for Senate.

Wharton said he met with GOP officials at the state party chairman’s behest, but declined to comment further on the House seat. He was more open when talking about the attorney general’s race.

“Yes, if the attorney general decides he wants to run for Senate, I would seriously consider that,” said Wharton, who is now assistant public defender.

Republicans could kill two birds with one stone, if Castle decided to run for Senate. Speculation has it that Castle’s sizable lead over Biden in early polling (55-34 in an April Susquehanna poll) could scare the vice president’s son away, leaving him to run for reelection to his current office in 2010. Wharton said he would be far less likely to run against Beau Biden.

A fifth option, and one Castle himself has talked about, is Republican former state Sen. Charlie Copeland, who lost badly in the 2008 lieutenant governor’s race. Copeland declined to express interest in the race. As a DuPont heir, Republicans say he could be formidable if he committed some wealth to the race.