By Felicia Sonmez and Paul Farhi
Saturday, September 18, 2010; C01
It's unclear whether Christine O'Donnell will be coming to Washington for the long haul. But on Friday afternoon, social conservatives meeting in the nation's capital welcomed her as their ascendant star.
Pick your metaphor: O'Donnell, the winner of the Delaware Republican Senate primary and a darling of the "tea party" movement, was the rookie of the year, the ingénue sensation and the It Girl of the Values Voter Summit, the Family Research Council's annual gathering of roughly 2,000 social conservatives from across the country.
Speaking at the end of a long line of national Republican luminaries, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, O'Donnell electrified a ballroom of activists with a message aimed squarely at her critics -- both inside and outside the GOP establishment.
"They're trying to say we're taking over this party or that campaign," O'Donnell said to a raucous reception. "They don't get it. We're not trying to take back our country. We are our country."
The Values Voter crowd, a collection of antiabortion activists, anti-same-sex marriage advocates and Christian conservatives, has been a key constituency for Republican candidates on the national stage, propelling the likes of Huckabee and Romney.
O'Donnell followed other social conservative stars including Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), stealing the show from better-known party leaders.
The enthusiasm with which O'Donnell was greeted Friday afternoon stood in stark contrast to the dour assessments of her electoral viability, even after her stunning upset of establishment Rep. Mike Castle (R).
O'Donnell has been attacked from within her own party as an extremist gadfly out of touch with the generally moderate to liberal Delaware electorate.
Former White House adviser Karl Rove dismissed O'Donnell the night of her win, telling Fox News's Sean Hannity that "there were a lot of nutty things she has been saying that don't add up."
You wouldn't know it from her appearance Friday at Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel. O'Donnell was the recipient of multiple standing ovations during her 18-minute remarks. Her speech elicited so much emotion from the crowd that some attendees in the few first few rows had eyes welled with tears.
Such an emotional outpouring may reflect the sentiment among many social conservatives that they, much like O'Donnell, have been underestimated and undervalued by the media and political establishment.
O'Donnell told the crowd to fight back against the critics who dismiss them as out of the mainstream.
"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.