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Christine O'Donnell fights back at Values Voter Summit

The tea party's latest darling, Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, aligned herself squarely with the Republican Party's social conservative base Friday in her first national appearance since her upset primary victory. (Sept. 17)

"Some have accused us of being just an aging crowd of former Reagan staffers and home-schoolers," O'Donnell said. "They're trying to marginalize us and put us in a box."

She made no mention in her speech of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R), who gave the candidate a much-needed boost in her race against Castle by endorsing her earlier this month.

But it was hard to escape Palin's echo. In her dark suit and stylish haircut, O'Donnell looks like a somewhat younger version of her political godmother. The cadences of her speech seemed to owe something to Palin, too -- cheerful, but slightly barbed.

An eager media scrum waited for O'Donnell to appear immediately after her speech in a foyer outside the ballroom. O'Donnell never showed.

But for some in the audience -- many of whom had never heard O'Donnell speak before -- O'Donnell filled them with an enthusiasm unmatched by previous speakers.

"I love her," said Ruth Mizell, 88, the wife of the late baseball legend and North Carolina congressman Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell (R). "Her voice is better than Sarah Palin's. She reminds me of Margaret Thatcher." Mizell added that O'Donnell was "down-to-earth" and "isn't just some sweet-talking politician."

It's unclear whether this marks the peak of O'Donnell's political career or if she's on her way to enduring stardom. O'Donnell's victory over Castle, a 40-year political veteran, has been hailed by those in the tea party as a triumph of their movement over politics-as-usual. But most political handicappers have deemed O'Donnell's primary win as a major setback for Republicans in their quest to claim the seat of outgoing Sen. Ted Kaufman (D).

The ebullience evident at the Values Voter Summit, though, was a sign that it's still too early to discount O'Donnell and other tea-party-backed candidates. In an election year in which polls point toward a dispirited Democratic base, insurgent Republican candidates such as O'Donnell could turn disaffection into votes.

O'Donnell pushed back against the notion that at a time when voters are focused on the economy, social issues should take a back seat. And a few politicians with longer résumés and national profiles expressed their own righteous indignation.

Santorum told the crowd that "when people come out and tell us that we have to put the values issues in the back of the bus, we have to have a truce on the values issues, because the economic issues are paramount -- we can have no economic freedom unless we have good, virtuous moral people inspired by their faith."

But speeches also ran the gamut from campaign-style addresses such as Romney's and Santorum's to a blistering critique of Islam from conservative Christian leader Gary Bauer, who told the summit attendees that "we are at war with a group that is getting their inspiration from their religious teachings."

"Mr. President, it's time for the Islamic world to prove to the rest of the world that they understand human rights and that they will tolerate religious freedom," Bauer said to applause.

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