In Del, O’Donnell faces hurdles in trying to convert GOP primary upset to a November stunner

By Charles Babington, AP
Friday, September 24, 2010

A wary O’Donnell tries to repeat her magic in Del.

GEORGETOWN, Del. — The only thing harder than shocking the political world with a come-from-nowhere victory is doing it again seven weeks later.

Even many Republican loyalists think Christine O’Donnell, the tea party darling who capped a summer of primary upsets by wrestling a U.S. Senate nomination from a GOP icon in Delaware, faces a steeper climb on Nov. 2 than she did on Sept. 14.

The man she beat then, nine-term congressman and former governor Michael Castle, was mulling a possible write-in candidacy Friday, a move that could pull some moderate Republicans’ votes from O’Donnell, and possibly some independent votes from her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons. The head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee urged Castle not to run.

Coons, 47, is a low-key county executive of Delaware’s biggest county, and a man many had expected to lose to Castle in November. O’Donnell’s primary victory scrambled that picture, giving Democrats strong hopes of keeping the Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. A recent CNN-Time poll showed Coons leading O’Donnell by 16 percentage points.

To win, Democrats must contain the fiery, anti-establishment fervor that shifted O’Donnell from a perennial also-ran candidate into a nationally famous giant-killer. Besides overnight name recognition, she benefits from TV-friendly vibrancy and more than $2 million in campaign funds that poured in through the Internet after she beat Castle.

Nonetheless, O’Donnell, 41, faces obstacles unknown to fellow tea party insurgents in, say, Alaska and Utah. She made a string of unusual comments during her years as a conservative TV guest - including speeches against masturbation and a claim of briefly dabbling in witchcraft - which she attributed to “teenage rebellion.” The IRS placed a lien against her property this year for unpaid taxes, which she blamed on a government computer error.

More problematic, O’Donnell is running in a Democratic-leaning state, where Barack Obama won 62 percent of the 2008 presidential vote. Even in a year of fired-up conservatives and demoralized Democrats, the Senate contest “still probably favors the Democrat,” said Wayne Smith, a former leader of Delaware’s House Republicans. “It’s a blue state by a pretty significant margin.”

O’Donnell won 53 percent of the nearly 58,000 votes cast in the GOP primary. The November election will draw far more voters, many of them non-conservatives. In the last mid-term Senate election in 2006, nearly 243,000 people in Delaware voted. Democrat Tom Carper won easily.

Gerald Johnston exemplifies O’Donnell’s challenge. The 72-year-old DuPont company retiree was eating lunch at a small deli south of Wilmington this week, reading a newspaper article about allegations that O’Donnell used campaign funds to support herself.

Johnston said he’s a conservative who voted for O’Donnell in the primary. “But now I’m just starting to have a few reservations,” he said.

He said he wants to learn more about the campaign money allegations and O’Donnell’s much-discussed TV remarks. If she can allay his concerns, he probably will vote for her again, Johnston said, adding that he’s almost ready to oust “anyone who’s been in there for any length of time.”

Because so many voters don’t know O’Donnell, “she needs to make contact with people and actually meet people face-to-face,” said Mary Spicer, president of the Delaware Federation of Republican Women.

O’Donnell has attended a forum with Coons and a Republican picnic, among other post-primary events, but she is wary of the press and potentially unfriendly venues. She told Fox News she was “not going to do any more national media,” but some Delaware reporters also have trouble covering her.

On Wednesday, O’Donnell used a back entrance to avoid two reporters and two photographers — one each from the Associated Press and CNN — awaiting her arrival at the Sussex County Republican Women’s luncheon, in Georgetown. She told the audience of about 90 that she was “a little disappointed” that reporters were present “because I wanted to talk candidly, and for some reason everything I’m saying is getting recorded and twisted.”

Her eight-minute speech covered familiar ground. O’Donnell said government tax and regulation policies should “get out of the way of the entrepreneur,” and she called for permanent repeal of the inheritance tax.

She said Bush-era tax cuts should be extended for all income groups, including taxpayers earning more than $250,000 a year. “The dry cleaner down the street who makes $300,000″ should not see higher taxes, she said.

The audience applauded politely. O’Donnell refused to take questions from a reporter when she finished shaking hands and, 90 minutes later, after she emerged from a small meeting with advisers.

Coons readily talks with reporters, but has suffered his own campaign distractions. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called him his “pet.” Coons says he was being sarcastic when he labeled himself a “bearded Marxist” in a college newspaper article years ago.

He lacks O’Donnell’s sparkle, but he says he thinks voters will respond to his openness and his calls for more transparent and efficient government, including limits on Senate filibusters and “secret holds” on bills.

“Delawareans want to know you, meet you, ask you tough questions before they’ll vote for you,” Coons said. “This is a very centrist state that likes its elected officials to be fiscally conservative, responsive, rooted, tolerant and inclusive.”

Sussex County Republican Committee Chairman Ron Sams, who came to hear O’Donnell in Georgetown, echoed Coons in saying Delaware is a “moderate-type state.”

Will this year’s tide of voter unrest and tea party enthusiasm push O’Donnell to victory?

“I wish I had an answer for that,” Sams said.

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