O'Donnell to Delaware voters: Keep an open mind

Conservative activist and tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell upset veteran U.S. Rep. Michael Castle in the Delaware Republican Senate primary Tuesday, overcoming hostile opposition from her state party to earn the surprising victory. (Sept. 14)
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Friday, September 17, 2010; 2:45 PM

WILMINGTON, DEL.- Christine O'Donnell, the "tea party"-backed Republican Senate nominee from Delaware, urged voters Thursday night to keep an open mind despite what she described as the "rather unflattering portrait" of her that has emerged in the media.

In her first post-primary debate against Democratic nominee Chris Coons, O'Donnell said she has matured since making controversial statements in favor of "sexual purity" and against masturbation in a 1996 MTV documentary. "I was very excited and passionate about my newfound faith," she said about that period in her life.

O'Donnell said during the debate that she opposes embryonic stem cell research and abortion except if the life of the mother is threatened. But she said she would adhere to the Constitution rather than her personal beliefs if elected, and emphasized her views about taxes and the size and role of government over her opinions on social issues.

O'Donnell and Coons are battling for the Senate seat previously held by Vice President Biden (D).

"As you look forward over the next month and a half, please consider if you like what's coming from Washington - if you think that you're paying enough taxes, if you think the government isn't spending enough, if you think they're representing you enough and that the country is on track. . . . I don't," O'Donnell said in her closing remarks. "If I haven't earned your vote tonight, I urge you to sign up on my Web site so that you can hear directly from me, because as I said, what you hear in the media isn't always accurate."

Coons, whose election prospects improved after O'Donnell's surprising victory over veteran Rep. Mike Castle in Tuesday's primary, vowed to focus his campaign on the issues rather than "statements made 20 or 30 years ago." However, he stressed his experience as the executive of New Castle County, the state's most populous county, over O'Donnell's lack of government experience and suggested that he would be the moderate, fiscally focused candidate.

"I think what we're here about tonight is figuring out which candidate has the right solutions," he said. "This is a campaign about ideas, not ideology. Not about a narrow social agenda but who is going to get this country back on track."

Coons's campaign Web site features a smiling picture of O'Donnell and the words "Meet our GOP opponent." He is expected to campaign with Biden on Friday.

The standing-room-only crowd at Wilmington's Jewish Community Center included a mix of the tea party activists responsible for O'Donnell's victory over the establishment-backed Castle on Tuesday and moderate voters who said they were stunned by the primary results.

Many in the audience were Democrats who said they had planned to vote for Castle, a popular former governor who has won more than 10 statewide elections in this moderate state.

Now, they find themselves returning to their party to back Coons, uncomfortable with O'Donnell's more extreme views, her inexperience, her personal financial troubles and the backing she received from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R).

"I just hung up the phone, that was all I needed to know," said Andrea Levine, a Wilmington resident, describing her disgust at receiving a robo-call recorded by Palin on O'Donnell's behalf.

Other erstwhile Castle backers said they had yet to make up their minds. "Castle's been a long-time good guy," said Paul Falkowski, a Democrat and out-of-work teacher who said he was considering voting for Coons. "But Christine O'Donnell will shake up Washington, D.C., and Washington, D.C., deserves to be shaken up."

Coons instantly was labeled the front-runner when O'Donnell won Tuesday. However, in an unusual year, Democrats said they are not taking that for granted. "I just never thought this would happen in a state like Delaware," said Meredith Rosenthal, a Coons supporter who was upset rather than heartened by O'Donnell's primary victory. "Democrats better show up at the polls."

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