10.13.10

O'Donnell's Do or Die Debate

Witch! Marxist! The taunts flew in Christine O'Donnell's debate with Chris Coons in the Delaware Senate race. Will her down-to-earth showing get her back in the game? Samuel P. Jacobs reports.

Witch! Marxist! The taunts flew in Christine O'Donnell's debate with Chris Coons in the Delaware Senate race. Will her down-to-earth showing get her back in the game? Samuel P. Jacobs reports. Plus, Rebecca Dana talks to O'Donnell's neighbors about her burning ambition and feuds, her frequent visitors ("the walls upstairs are very thin"), the Christian rocker she lives with, and how she once started a fire. And: Watch video of the best moments.

Would Christine O'Donnell be able to add "skilled debater" to the disparate points on her resume such as wiccan and mama grizzly?

That was the question going into Wednesday night's Delaware debate, during which the conservative activist took another turn in the national spotlight, trying to close the cavernous gap between her and her Democratic opponent Chris Coons.

O'Donnell set out from tried-and-tested grounds, tarring Coons as a "career politician" and billing him as out of touch with voters, saying, "I don't have a trust fund. I didn't come from a privileged background."

But things got shakier when O'Donnell refused to answer a question from debate moderator, Wolf Blitzer of CNN, who asked whether O'Donnell believed in evolution.

"What I believe is irrelevant," she said.

And she clearly stumbled when asked with which recent Supreme Court decisions she disagreed.

"Right off the top of my head, I know there are a lot," O'Donnell said. "I'll put them on my website."

O'Donnell, for her part, attacked Coons for saying, while at college, that he became a Democrat under the influence of a Marxist professor.

"There are more people who support my Catholic faith than his Marxist beliefs," she said.

Coons countered that his college essay—"Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist"—was meant as a gag. "If you take five minutes and read the article, it's very clear that it's a joke!" he said. "I am not now, and I have never been, anything but a clean-shaven capitalist!"

"What I believe is irrelevant," O'Donnell said.

The pair also tussled over health-care reform, the length of the American involvement in Afghanistan, and the White House's economic plan.

O'Donnell's Supreme Blunder?

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And Coons responded by calling O'Donnell out of her depth at every turn.

"Ms. O'Donnell has the experience of running for office, but not running anything," said Coons who appeared exasperated with his opponent throughout the exchange, complaining that the time allotted wouldn't provide enough time to answer her charges.

"It took a couple of minutes to understand what she was talking about," Coons said of one O'Donnell assertion.

O'Donnell repartee to the Coons attacks?

"You are just jealous that you weren't on Saturday Night Live," she told him.

Who won the debate? Neither of them. O'Donnell didn't demonstrate any of the intellectual heft which her campaign sorely needs. Coons appeared annoyed, recalling Al Gore's frustration when he was placed on the dais with Texas Gov. George W. Bush. His attempts at laugh lines fell flat. He kept up a consistent patter about the debate not providing enough time for him to dispel his opponent's attacks. Against O'Donnell's salt-of-the-earth presentation, Coons was aloof. But then the stakes were unfair: the threshold for O'Donnell, thanks to her helter-skelter campaign thus far, were very low and Coons likely didn't do himself any favors by reflecting the nation's disbelief. Sometimes a candidate has to take his opponent seriously, even when most others don't.

I'm You…at a Debate

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Rebecca Dana—Christine in the 'Frat House'O'Donnell, 41, has caught the nation's attention with her far-right beliefs, wacky statements about witchcraft, her Palin-esque charisma, and her candidacy seems perfectly scripted to contain the multitudes of midterm storylines: the rise of Republican women, the appeal of outsider candidates, Tea Party might, and the hide-and-go-seek campaigner.

But capturing the zeitgeist isn't always the best way to secure a Senate seat.

Despite all the attention, O'Donnell still lags well behind Coons, the less-colorful local government executive, trailing him by 19 points in the most recent poll. Not that the Democrats are taking a Coons victory for granted. Both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who held the Delaware seat for 30 years, will join Coons, 47, on the campaign trail later this week. (Not that all help from Washington is helpful. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid described Coons as "my pet" last month—hardly a depiction that will make it into Coons' campaign literature.)

Locally, Coons' supporters showed up wearing witch hats and carrying brooms—a dig at O'Donnell's admission that she "dabbled in witchcraft" when she was younger. The debate was held at the University of Delaware, and the loudest group on the quadrangle was a group of students who chanted for equal rights for gays.

Coons' supporters, meanwhile, told stories about their candidate's sense of humor—apparently he is an expert auctioneer at local fundraising events, cajoling local politicians to outbid one another.

The college Republicans were more divided. Most had originally backed veteran Republican Rep. Mike Castle, whom O'Donnell beat in the September primary. But a handful donned light blue O'Donnell T-shirts to support her candidacy.

There's some confusion within Republican circles over the nature of O'Donnell's campaign strategy since she beat Castle in the Republican primary on September 14. Instate Republicans insist that O'Donnell is focused on doing local media and appealing to the state's voters. One activist spoke of two events she attended with O'Donnell over the last couple of weeks, each attended by the press. Others talked about the many events O'Donnell has declined to attend, an out-of-reach campaign style unfamiliar to the residents of the second smaller state who are accustomed to a lot of glad-handing.

Delaware reporters, meanwhile, say the campaign has all but blocked them out. This hasn't earned O'Donnell many friends among the local scribblers. On Wednesday, one columnist wrote in Delaware's New Journal, "It'll be interesting to see how Delawareans react to a U.S. Senate candidacy run by a carpet-bagging New Jerseyan who doesn't talk to the local media."

O'Donnell may not have won points on Wednesday as a skilled orator but as the debate showed, she hopes to win the election by the power of her everywoman message—one that her supporter, Sarah Palin, has used to great effect.

Coons: I Don't Understand You

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As for that other part of her resume?

"The witch stuff is dirty rotten politics," said Garrett Jenkins, a junior at the university and an O'Donnell supporter.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.