TALLEYVILLE, Del. -- Let's just say it right up front and get it out of the way: New Tea Party rock star Christine O'Donnell is a Sarah Palin-Michele Bachmann
Republican and Democrat Chris Coons is, well, a balding middle-aged guy in a dark suit with a lot of degrees.
Just 48 hours after O'Donnell dispatched moderate Rep. Mike Castle in a bitter Senate primary, she walked onstage in a burst of glamour and color -- pearls, fitted turquoise jacket, bright-red toenails peeping from open-toed slides with three-inch heels -- and her partisans erupted in cheers.
To be completely fair, Coons is not that much older than O'Donnell (47 to her 41) and he, too, evoked rapturous responses from his fans in a standing-room-only, overflow crowd Thursday night at the Jewish Community Center. The difference is that O'Donnell is an overnight celebrity who was mobbed afterward and had, she told us, turned down numerous invitations to be on national TV so she could be at the forum. Her campaign received a huge boost from Palin and is viewed by many as a test run for a Palin 2012 presidential bid.
All of which is likely to mean nothing in the end. Even if O'Donnell were a perfect candidate, and she's far from it, Delaware is a Democratic state -- to the point that state auditor Tom Wagner told the JCC crowd that he is "the last Republican standing" in state government and laughingly urged them to "protect an endangered species." Like him, Castle was an exception -- a 30-year fixture in a tiny state where people are always running into their leaders at playgrounds, parties and supermarkets.
The personal nature of the politics here works for Coons. A policy wonk and former debate champ, he doesn't have O'Donnell's dash or easy warmth. But for six years he has been executive of New Castle County, which includes the population center of Wilmington. Unlike her, he has held office, he is married and has a family, and he seems to have had no trouble collecting degrees. He double-majored in chemistry and political science at Amherst, then added a Yale law degree and a master's in ethics from the Yale Divinity School. His qualifications and record prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to say last week, unadvisedly, that "he's my pet. He's my favorite candidate."
For O'Donnell, the intimacy of Delaware politics is problematic. This is her third race for the Senate and people here know her. The local newspaper has written up her $5,800 in annual income, the near foreclosure on her mortgage, her unpaid taxes, the IRS lien against her, a lawsuit over unpaid tuition
that held up her undergraduate degree for 17 years (she finally got it this summer). Former aides are spilling tales of alleged shoddy financial management, strange ideas and delusions of grandeur
. One said in a robo-call for Castle that O'Donnell was running to "make a buck" and living off campaign donations
. Her profession, her background, how she makes ends meet -- all are unclear.
Nor is there anywhere right now to get information on O'Donnell from O'Donnell, because her website has vanished
except for a funds solicitation. Like Sharron Angle's site, which also disappeared for a while after Angle won an unexpected Senate primary victory in Nevada, it is presumably being scrubbed of O'Donnell's more controversial positions.
Not that they are a secret. She told the JCC audience that she opposes embryonic stem cell research and all abortions except if a woman is going to die, in which case her family could decide which life to save ("There's probably not a single person in this room who has not been affected by abortion," she said, somewhat enigmatically).
She'll never vote to increase taxes, and she wants to raise the retirement age for collecting Social Security benefits (she said the issue crystallized for her when she saw Valerie Bertinelli on the cover of AARP magazine -- another puzzling remark, since Bertinelli is 50, eligible for AARP membership but 16 years away from being able to collect full Social Security benefits).
Oh, and don't worry about Big Brother monitoring what you do alone in bed. O'Donnell, who is on videotape denouncing masturbation
, cleared that up in response to this question: "You have taken a strong stance as to people's private sexual behavior. What do you think is the role of government in regulating that?"
"It's personal," a woman in the audience called out. "I agree, it's personal," O'Donnell said. She said her 1996 comments on the issue came when she was in her 20s and excited about her "newfound" faith. "But I assure you my faith has matured," she said. "And when I go to Washington, D.C., it'll be the Constitution on which I base all of my decisions, not my personal beliefs."
Coons said Delawareans aren't interested "in statements that either of us made 20 or 30 years ago." He said he hoped he and his opponent can focus on their policy proposals and constructive ideas. O'Donnell applauded him with a grin and later said she appreciated an opponent who wanted to discuss ideas (a reference to what she called the "rather unflattering portrait" painted by Castle and state GOP Chairman Tom Ross, who took aim at her character and called her unelectable).
The subtext of the Coons performance, however, was pointed. Every time he said he wanted voters to judge the candidates on ideas, values, seriousness or experience, which was often, it was hard to miss his implied contrast. And for all the civility during this forum, his campaign issued a sharp-edged statement right afterward.
Coons, spokesman Daniel McElhatton said, has "reformed a corrupt county government" and helped create jobs for 25 years. O'Donnell "has never made a tough decision. She has no interest in working across party lines and finding common sense solutions to get people back to work. Ms. O'Donnell appears most interested in promoting herself and her radical social and economic agenda."
Some Republicans are belatedly realizing that the wise course is to get behind O'Donnell,
in at least a perfunctory way. The national Senate campaign committee is giving her $42,000, the maximum it can, though it's unlikely she'll benefit from independent GOP expenditures on advertising. Ross acknowledged Thursday -- two days after the primary -- that "the winds of change are blowing hard in Delaware" and it was time for Delaware Republicans "to come together."
For all O'Donnell's star power, the odds are that Ross and Castle will be proven right about her in November. That'll be soon enough to say "I told you so."
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