Twelve candidates for Delaware County Council are clawing their way toward the May 15 primary in a campaign that is featuring enough clandestine plotting and bitter accusations to script an episode of

Survivor

.

Democrats are bickering about an unofficial alliance by three primary candidates, and dissident Republicans are criticizing the current GOP council as secretive, an accusation party leaders dismiss.

Six candidates from each party are on the May 15 primary ballot, but voters will choose only three Democrats and three Republicans to run in the November general election.

The out-of-power Democrats believe they can reach a goal last seen in 1979 - a seat on the all-Republican county council. Republicans contend their record - moderate taxes, small but efficient government - means they won't be voted off the island.

"It took a long time for the Democrats to wake up to the changes in Delaware County," said F. Graham Lee, a political science professor at St. Joseph's University who sees the possibility of a Democrat on council.

Lee, who is also a Republican ward leader in Haverford, said the political landscape in Delaware County is changing as more people register Democratic, much as is occurring in large suburban communities from New York to Philadelphia.

In 1970, Republicans were 78 percent of the county's registered voters - this year they are 54 percent.

During last fall's congressional race, Delaware County Democrats, energized by dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and the disclosure of an FBI investigation involving 10-term incumbent Republican Rep. Curt Weldon, elected Democrat Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral.

"However the primary goes down, there will be strong contenders," in the fall race against the GOP, said Sestak. He has not endorsed any individual candidate for the primary.

Whether or not the Democrats will be able to capitalize on Sestak's momentum and capture all three council seats is up for debate.

The three top vote-getters in November, irrespective of party, will fill the open seats on the seven-member council. Unlike in other Pennsylvania counties, no seat is reserved for minority representation.

"There is no question that this will be our best year," said Cliff Wilson, Delaware County Democratic Party chair.

The Democrats did not endorse a slate of candidates. Running in the primary are:

Bob Dimond, 72, the former Mayor of East Lansdowne, now of Media; John F. Innelli, 52, a previous county council candidate and attorney from Rose Valley; David Landau, 53, an attorney and former congressional candidate from Wallingford; Patricia Lewis-West, 65, a former Chester City Council and school board members; Ann M. O'Keefe, 47, an attorney from Haverford; and Rocco Polidoro, 54, an insurance agent from Springfield.

Landau, a Sestak adviser and Nether Providence Democratic chair, has snapped up staffers from Sestak's congressional campaign. Three other candidates have agreed to run as a slate: Innelli, O'Keefe and Lewis-West. "We need to have a group that can communicate well and work well together even if we are not on the same page," Innelli said.

Their decision, coming after Democrats agreed each would run independently, aggravated other party members.

Three of the six Republican candidates enjoy the backing of the party leaders.

"We have a good group of candidates that have all held public office in the past or at the present time," said Republican Party Chairman Tom Judge, Sr.

The endorsed slate is: Christine Fizzano Cannon, 37, attorney and a Middletown Township council person; Andy Lewis, 50, who works with start-up businesses and is a Haverford Township commissioner; and Tom McGarrigle, 48, who owns an automotive business and is a Springfield commissioner.

A test of the Republican Party's likely showing this fall may be found in the primary results, where the endorsed candidates face challengers from outside the traditional party organization.

Judge would barely acknowledge those three candidates, Joseph Breslin, 79, a former Haverford School Board member; Rose Izzo, 38, a Web designer from Ridley Township; and Richard Lacey, 53, a real estate salesman from Springfield.

The three are waging a blunt campaign race against the party's established leaders.

They could even be mistaken for Democrats who have long railed against GOP dominance.

"Everything is rubber-stamped," said Lacey. "People are tired of the backroom deals going on," said Izzo. "The Republican party is going downhill," said Breslin, noting the county voted Democratic in the last three presidential elections.

Lacey, a council candidate in 2004 who was subject to negative ads from his own party, feels the "patronage and political buddy system" leads to inefficient government.

Both the Democrats and independent Republicans say their top priority is creating a more transparent government.

They point to the current council meetings, which are held at 10 a.m. Tuesdays - when most people are at work. There is little, if any, discussion before a usually unanimous vote on every agenda item.

The candidates propose moving the time of the meetings to the evening, and promise a public discussion of items on the weekly agenda.

The critics say there are too many county jobs, and have called for preserving open space and creating a county health department. They oppose the FAA's plan to route planes over the county, and promise to keep taxes in check.

All three endorsed Republicans are promoting economic revitalization in the county's smaller, aging communities, oppose the FAA's proposal, and support preserving open space.

Fizzano Cannon said she would "keep an open mind" on a proposal to create a county health department, but added, "We don't want to get in a situation where we are providing duplicate services" found in other county departments.

"Voters are going to be responsive to the fact there has not been a tax increase in three years," said Lewis. The county, Lewis says, is run "efficiently, provides services and it is open."

Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.