Delaware's O'Donnell is a 'tea party' hero, but controversy casts a shadow

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)
By Sandhya Somashekhar and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 10:11 PM

WILMINGTON, DEL. - In her opening remarks during a debate that came just two days after her stunning victory in this state's Republican primary for Senate, Christine O'Donnell acknowledged what had already become apparent.

"There's no secret," she said, "that there's been a rather unflattering portrait of me painted these days." But, she went on, "as we approach the general election this next month and a half, it is my goal for you to find out who I am."

Who O'Donnell is has suddenly become one of the most important questions in politics, as leaders in both parties try to figure out whether she is the fresh face of a burgeoning movement or a fringe figure who will soon fade.

She has been introduced to the country through a dribble of unearthed video footage of her comments on Christian morality. In one widely circulated clip from a 1996 MTV documentary, she decried masturbation on religious grounds. In another previously unreleased clip from 1999, she laughingly told a television audience that she'd once "dabbled into witchcraft" and unknowingly had a picnic on what she called a Satanic altar.

On Saturday, O'Donnell canceled two appearances she had agreed to make on the Sunday morning talk shows, saying she would make local campaign stops in Delaware instead.

While her come-from-nowhere victory undoubtedly catapulted the "tea party" movement forward, it has also brought a new and intense level of scrutiny that has the potential to damage it.

Even as many tea party activists praise her victory, strange stories about O'Donnell emerge daily. Some of her financial troubles could counter the tea party's message of fiscal and personal responsibility. And her wide-ranging comments on sex could marginalize a movement that has tried hard in recent months to portray itself as a cross-section of America.

Democrats immediately seized upon O'Donnell as emblematic of what they say is an untested and fringe element that is taking over the Republican Party.

And among Republicans, her victory stoked the fear that has followed them all year: that there will be a backlash against the tea party that could dampen support for their candidates and cost them a shot at taking over Congress.

Most of the GOP establishment has lined up behind her. And to her most avid supporters, O'Donnell's personal problems have humanized her and helped establish her as a symbol of the power of voters over an establishment that has become too accustomed to anointing candidates.

"I'm the everyman and she's the everywoman," said Bill Colley, a conservative radio talk show host in Delaware who backs her candidacy. "All of the allegations that the Republican Party establishment have heaped on her have only made us rush to her defense."

For her opponent, Democrat Chris Coons, she could be a galvanizing force that helps him turn out voters in November.

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