'Kooky' Tea Party heroine makes strides in debates with rival Coons


Christine O’Donnell has managed to steer clear of outlandishness, writes Lara Marlowein Wilmington, Delaware

SHE’S A laughing stock to political liberals; an all-American girl victimised by arrogant, elitist media to the right-wing Tea Party.

Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate for the Senate seat that Vice-President Joe Biden held for 36 years, has been the biggest surprise of the 2010 mid-term election season.

In two debates here this week with her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, O’Donnell put up a creditable performance, avoiding the sort of outlandish statements about the evils of masturbation and mice with fully functioning human brains that made her famous.

Despite the ridicule to which she’s been subjected, O’Donnell, who looks girlish at 41, has attained a certain star status. When she and Coons entered the Gold Ballroom at the Hotel Du Pont in Wilmington for their second debate on Thursday, she was mobbed by television cameras and guests at the Rotary Club luncheon. Coons, an austere egghead who holds degrees from the Yale schools of law and divinity, was largely ignored, even by his supporters.

O’Donnell’s latest television commercial begins with these words, vaguely reminiscent of Richard Nixon: “I am not a witch. I’m nothing you’ve heard. I’m you.” (The bizarre advertisement was an attempt to undo the damage from an old television interview in which O’Donnell confessed to having “dabbled in witchcraft” as a high school student.)

In the Gold Ballroom, the once wannabe witch was more like Cinderella, approaching midnight on November 2nd. A Rasmussen poll after their first debate showed Coons leading, 51 per cent to 40 per cent for O’Donnell. The odds are poor for the Tea Party heroine, but the movement is in her direction. The debate narrowed the gap between her and Coons from 21 points to 11 points.

Beneath the damask table clothes in the Gold Ballroom, the knives were drawn. Establishment Wilmington, which makes its money on cars, chemicals and credit card processing, can’t stomach upstart O’Donnell, who is more at home with the chicken farmers south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

I watched Jack Markell, the Democratic governor of Delaware who a few minutes earlier told journalists that O’Connell will soon be a “footnote”, gush over her. When the luncheon-debate was over, several guests, all Republicans, told me they will vote for the Democrat Coons, because they have more faith in his judgment and experience.

Until O’Donnell popped out of nowhere to win the Republican primary last month, it was assumed that Mike Castle, Delaware’s most prominent Republican politician, would take Biden’s old seat. If, as moderate Republicans believe, O’Donnell is “unelectable,” her candidacy probably destroyed the GOP’s chance of seizing the Senate from Democrats.

Although Democrats outnumber Republicans by 17 percentage points in Delaware, and despite Coons’s lead in the polls, President Barack Obama and Biden yesterday travelled to Wilmington for a rally on behalf of Coons at the Grand Opera House.

Delaware has a lower unemployment rate – 8.4 per cent – than much of the country, and the president is still popular here.

“Chris Coons is very savvy at explaining that his election must not be taken for granted,” said John Mussoni, the director of the public television station WHYY in Wilmington. “There’s a feeling that the Tea Party has gone as far as it can go here, but that Coons must not let apathy lose the election for him.”

A study published by the American University on October 14th showed Democrats had their lowest turnout ever in the 2010 primaries, while the GOP had their highest turnout since 1970.

The O’Donnell-Coons campaign seems to symbolise the wider Republican-Democrat contest.

O’Donnell has raised some $3 million since her primary victory last month, most of it from out of state. Obama this week tried to make the secret funding of Republican candidates a campaign issue.

Coons typifies the earnest, over-educated-but-out-of-touch aura of the Obama administration, while O’Donnell epitomises what the Washington Post yesterday called “the year of kooky candidates”.

In addition to her pronouncements on sex and witchcraft, O’Donnell has made a mess of her personal finances and in the past advocated invading Iran and claimed she was privy to secret intelligence that China was plotting to take over the US.

Other candidates with Tea Party support include Sharron Angle, who wants to dismantle large chunks of the federal government and who could beat the Senate majority leader Harry Reid in Nevada; and Carl Paladino, the gay-bashing New York gubernatorial candidate. This week, it emerged that Rich Iott, a Republican congressional candidate from Ohio, has been dressing up as a Nazi SS officer at weekends for years.

O’Donnell’s rise to fame began about a week before the Republican primary in September, when Sarah Palin endorsed her and Tea Party operatives arrived to take charge of publicity.

Two of Palin’s advisers, Randy Scheunemann and Michael Goldfarb, prepped O’Donnell for this week’s debates with Coons. If O’Donnell can reduce the gap with Coons, local journalists predict Palin may show up in Delaware just before the election.

Ironically, O’Donnell’s biggest gaffe in this week’s debates was the same one committed by Palin two years ago, when she was John McCain’s running mate. Asked what recent Supreme Court decisions she disagreed with, O’Donnell said, “Oh, gosh. Um, give me a specific one. I’m sorry . . . Um, I’m very sorry, right off the top of my head, I know that there are a lot, but I’ll put it up on my website, I promise you.”

Such ignorance does not worry O’Donnell’s supporters, who see her as an ordinary American like themselves. Alison Aull, a school teacher in Wilmington, will vote for O’Donnell because “she supports low taxes, small government, the military and traditional values”.

Anger with Washington has fuelled the rise of the Tea Party, to the point where even a bland Democrat like Coons feels obliged to repeat that “Washington is broken.”

“I’m mad,” Mrs Aull continues. “It’s my money going down the tubes, and it’s my country going down the tubes. A lot of us are mad at this jack-ass . I knew in the primaries, when he said he wanted to redistribute wealth, what his agenda would be.”