With a fresh-faced exuberance matched only by missteps and gaffes, Christine O'Donnell and her quirky personality captivated the nation and dominated news coverage even in this extraordinary campaign.
But neither her reality show appeal nor blanket publicity were enough to convince Delaware voters to make the Republican candidate and tea party favorite their senator.
O'Donnell lost big on Tuesday to the Democrat, the wonkish county executive Chris Coons, in a contest the GOP had once considered a surefire pickup. It was particularly sweet revenge for Democrats in that it was Vice President Joe Biden's longtime seat.
Not that the 17-point defeat dimmed O'Donnell's trademark spunk.
"We had an incredible victory. We have won," an upbeat O'Donnell told supporters. "We were victorious because the Delaware political system will never be the same. The Republican Party will never be the same. And that's a good thing."
It was an unorthodox concession speech that was vintage O'Donnell, in that she recounted how she called Coons to congratulate him on his win but also lectured him on what he should and should not do in Washington. O'Donnell said she told Coons he should watch her 24-minute campaign commercial, which she failed to have broadcast as planned on Sunday because her staff did not deliver the tape to the television station on time.
It's unlikely that Republican leaders see O'Donnell's defeat through such a rose-colored lens. In September, O'Donnell's victory over the state's popular Republican moderate, Rep. Mike Castle, in the GOP primary completely changed the dynamic of a race that GOP leaders were counting on to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.
Yet after O'Donnell's stunning victory over the popular Castle, the media immediately highlighted the 41-year-old O'Donnell's track record of tax problems, financial woes and staff meltdowns. Even those problems were overshadowed by a steady drip of leaks from videotape archives of her many earlier television appearances as a Christian activist, in which she crusaded against masturbation, or admitted she "dabbled into witchcraft" before finding Jesus again.
As the campaign wore on, O'Donnell's mistakes on constitutional matters like the First Amendment's ban on establishing a state religion, and her claim that God had called her to run -- and the prayers of her faithful backers would propel her to victory -- did not help her poll numbers, though they did make her a media star.
Research from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that after President Obama, O'Donnell was the top newsmaker in 2010, meaning she was the focus of more stories than any other candidate -- and she performed that feat in just a few weeks, whereas the president has been in the news all year.
Still, none of that could save O'Donnell from herself, or from Delaware's notoriously middle-of-the-road voters, who favored Coons by a margin of 57-40 percent.
"Nearly half the state's voters describe themselves as moderate," CNN's Rebecca Sinderbrand wrote in an analysis based on exit polls. "Nearly another 1 in 4 call themselves liberal. This is Biden country: 58 percent of Delaware voters say they approve of President Obama's job performance. And 36 percent say they strongly oppose the tea party."
One surprise, Sinderbrand noted, is that despite pre-election polls showing Castle easily beating Coons in a hypothetical matchup, "the voters who turned out today said they would still probably have sent Coons to Washington over Castle, backing him 44-43 percent."
Still, there was a sense that O'Donnell's candidacy represented a lost opportunity for the GOP. There were other signs on election night that O'Donnell and her tea party fans did her party more harm than good in Delaware.
For example, the same night in September that Delaware's Republican primary voters chose O'Donnell over Castle, they also nominated real estate developer Glen Urquhart to run for Castle's congressional seat, and Urquhart proceeded to make O'Donnell look moderate at times.
As a result, Democrat John Carney, the state's former lieutenant governor, rolled to victory in Castle's once secure old seat, a net pick up for Democrats in a year no candidate with a "D" after their name could feel safe.
Now the interesting question -- and more unpredictable forecast -- surrounds Christine O'Donnell's future.
Could she become another Sarah Palin?
They are both attractive, plain-spoken, gaffe-prone conservative women with national profiles who hail from states with tiny populations (700,000 in Palin's Alaska and less than 900,000 in Delaware). True, O'Donnell has an even thinner political resume than Palin's half-term as Alaska's governor. But O'Donnell also has much more television exposure -- to her chagrin, at times -- having appeared regularly on Bill Maher's HBO show, "Politically Incorrect," among other venues.
"I think this is the start of Christine O'Donnell as political celebrity," said Rachel Maddow, MSNBC's popular liberal pundit. "She is an incredibly polished television personality."
With much less experience on the tube, Palin parlayed her galvanizing personality into a Fox News gig and a reality show, and came back from an electoral loss to become a political queenmaker whose beneficiaries from Tuesday's vote could set her up for a presidential run in 2012.
O'Donnell likely can't aim that high, but she could be an influence, and Tuesday night signaled she may try to be just that.
"Our voices were heard and we're never going to be quiet now," O'Donnell said. "This is just the beginning, and we've got a lot of work to do."
The other thing O'Donnell has going for her is that unlike Palin, she is single, instantly making her the tea party's most eligible bachelorette and a magnet for more media coverage -- whether that's a good thing or not.
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