In tight race, health issues dog Delaware's Roth

By Curtis Wilkie, Globe Correspondent, 10/26/2000

ILMINGTON, Del. - Coming in the midst of the strongest challenge of his political career, Senator William Roth's physical collapse in a television interview last week could not have been timed more awkwardly.

The videotape is explicit. Standing in the lobby of Hotel DuPont in downtown Wilmington, talking to a reporter, Roth, who is 79, can be seen appearing to grow faint. His eyes roll upward and he falls backward, striking his head on the wall before hitting the floor. Comcast, a regional cable operation, showed no more of the incident in its newscast, but resumed the interview a few minutes later after Roth recovered.

''I'm fine,'' Roth insisted. ''I have an inner-ear problem. I lose my sense of balance. That's what happened.''

Roth also collapsed this month off-camera at a public event that was attended by a number of Delaware politicians. According to Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who was on hand, Roth had to be stretched out until he regained consciousness. That collapse received little news coverage, but the senator's latest swoon in the posh hotel was seen on local TV and reported in the state's newspapers.

Despite professions by Roth's allies that the Delaware Republican is healthy and suffers from nothing more serious than vertigo, the fainting spells have added a new note of jeopardy to the Senate Finance Committee chairman's campaign for a sixth term.

His opponent is Tom Carper, a popular Democrat completing his second term as governor, and polls conducted before Roth's fall last Thursday indicated that the race was effectively tied.

Democrats had targeted Roth in their nationwide effort to win control of the Senate. Though the Democratic initiative was set back last week by the death of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan in a plane crash at a time when Carnahan was competing for a seat held by Republican Senator John Ashcroft, Roth is still considered one of the most vulnerable of the GOP incumbents.

A number of prominent Democrats, ranging from the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, to the colorful former governor of Texas, Ann Richards, have paraded through the state to lend Carper support. The national party is trying to maximize the turnout for Carper even as some black Democrats in Delaware are expressing little enthusiasm for the candidate because of their perception that Carper's centrist policies have done little for the state's underclass.

Carper is 53. After 10 years in Congress and eight years as governor, he is a well-known figure here. Still, there are echoes this year of the 1972 Senate race in Delaware when Biden, then an energetic 29-year-old county councilman, beat Senator J. Caleb Boggs, a revered Republican incumbent. Boggs was 33 years older than Biden.

While Roth is unable to campaign full-time because Congress is still in session, Monday's schedule for Carper began at 4:45 a.m. to greet a shift at a Chrysler plant in Newark, and ended 16 hours later with a rally at the University of Delaware.

Although Roth started the campaign with a 2-to-1 spending advantage, Carper husbanded his resources and went into the final month with more than $1 million in the bank. It gives Carper the ability to match Roth commercial for commercial in the closing days, Carper's aides say.

Carper has not tried to pounce on Roth's age or ailments. ''I have no comment other than to say I hope he's OK,'' Carper said in an interview Monday.

Instead, Carper said he was running on his record as governor. He was reelected four years ago by 70 percent of the voters.

Roth, who was first elected to the Senate in 1970 and was not seriously threatened until now, emphasizes his seniority and ability to deliver benefits that are out of proportion to the second smallest state in the union. He is also known as the author of the Kemp-Roth bill, a tax-cutting package that was a keystone to Reaganomics during President Reagan's administration. More recently, he sponsored legislation creating ''Roth IRAs'' for taxpayers investing in a retirement fund.