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.
But at the debate, even some disgruntled Democrats who had planned to vote for Rep. Michael N. Castle (R), whom O'Donnell defeated, said they were willing to consider voting for her.A Christian advocate
O'Donnell, 41, grew up in Moorestown, N.J., and attended Fairleigh Dickinson University, though she did not earn her degree until this year. She is single and has never held public office. She moved to Washington after college, working short stints in communications at the Republican National Committee and the Concerned Women of America.
She then started her own group, the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth, which still exists, according to her campaign filings. She started appearing on television as a conservative pundit, usually speaking on moral issues and particularly expressing her opposition to sex outside marriage.
Through her extensive media appearances in the 1990s, she expressed doubts about evolution and criticized homosexuality. She also said, in a 1997 C-SPAN clip unearthed by Talking Points Memo, that AIDS sufferers brought the disease on themselves and that too much money is spent on prevention efforts.
O'Donnell has been ridiculed on liberal blogs for statements she has made about sex, including the MTV appearance in which she referred to masturbation as sinful. During Thursday's debate, O'Donnell said her views had matured. "I was very excited and passionate about my newfound faith," she said about that period in her life.
On Friday, Bill Maher, on whose "Politically Incorrect" show O'Donnell had appeared in the 1990s, released the clip from 1999 of her talking about witchcraft.
"I dabbled into witchcraft, but I never joined a coven," she said. "One of my first dates with a witch was on a Satanic altar, and I didn't know it. I mean, there's a little blood there and stuff like that . . . We went to a movie and then, like, had a little midnight picnic on a Satanic altar."
Maher has promised to show a new clip every week until O'Donnell appears again on his show.
In 2003, she joined a Wilmington-based group called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute that produces journals and other material for Christian college students. As the group's director of communications, she often railed against co-ed bathrooms and what she viewed as increased sexual activity on college campuses.
"What's next? Orgy rooms? Menage-a-trois rooms?" she told the Washington Times that year.
O'Donnell was fired from the institute in 2004, and an official told the Wilmington News-Journal at the time that the dismissal was because she had used organization resources to run a for-profit business. Institute officials declined to comment about O'Donnell in an interview Friday.
She filed a lawsuit against her former employer the next year, alleging gender discrimination and seeking more than $7 million in damages. (She dropped the suit in 2008, saying she could no longer afford her legal fees.)
She ran for the Senate in 2006, 2008 and again this year, but it's unclear how she supported herself financially. In a disclosure form filed in July, O'Donnell answered "no" to the question of whether any group has paid her more than $5,000 over the past year. She listed about $6,000 in income from two conservative groups, neither of which could be reached for comment. She did not list any assets or bank accounts.
According to a biography posted on her Web site Saturday, O'Donnell has served as a marketing and media consultant to the Mel Gibson film "The Passion of The Christ"; Natalia Tsarkova, the Vatican's first female portrait painter; and the World Education and Development Fund, a charity that provides scholarships in Latin America. In 2002, she was awarded a Lincoln Fellowship at the Claremont Institute in California ; she is listed on the program's Web site as an alumna. A fellow in the program this year is conservative activist Andrew Breitbart.Financial troubles?
The IRS placed a lien against her earlier this year, saying she owed nearly $12,000 in unpaid taxes from 2005; O'Donnell has said it was a mistake by the IRS. Fairleigh Dickinson has sued her repeatedly to collect almost $5,000 of unpaid tuition, and two years ago, her mortgage company sued her for not paying rent. All of these matters appear to have been resolved, however, as she has sold the house and paid back the tuition. The lien has also been lifted.
O'Donnell had long said she was a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson, but she did not receive her degree until this month. While she says on her Web site that the delay was a result of the unpaid tuition, a campaign official told Politico earlier this month that she did not complete her coursework until this summer.
She told the News-Journal earlier this year that she lived in a townhouse that doubled as her campaign office, and that she paid part of her rent with campaign funds. On her Web site, however, she said she lives elsewhere and keeps her address private for security reasons. "During my 2008 campaign, both my home and campaign office were vandalized, broken into, and files were stolen," the Web site states. "Threatening messages were left and nasty names were scrawled across my front door and porch."
On Friday morning, there was no sign to distinguish the beige townhouse as a campaign office. When a reporter rang the doorbell, a woman in a "Christine 2010" T-shirt emerged and said the leasing company requested that members of the media be asked to leave the neighborhood.
The nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington says it will file a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission and ask the U.S. attorney in Delaware to investigate whether she used campaign funds for personal expenses.
Since her Tuesday victory, O'Donnell has raised nearly $1.8 million, according to her Web site.
At the Values Voter summit in Washington on Friday, O'Donnell was greeted as a conquering hero and was defiant about what she expects to face this fall.
"Will they attack us? Yes. Will they smear our backgrounds and distort our records? Undoubtedly," she told the crowd. "Will they lie about us, harass our families, name-call and try to intimidate us? They will. There's nothing safe about it. But is it worth it? I say yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is no moment for the faint of heart."
Alice Crites and Amy Gardner contributed to this report.