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O'Donnell, Coons show their differences in nationally televised debate

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 11:29 AM

Tiny Delaware's U.S. Senate race kept its perch in the national spotlight Wednesday night with a lively candidates' debate between Republican Christine O'Donnell and Democrat Chris Coons broadcast live on CNN.

From the campus of the University of Delaware in Newark, the two candidates sparred over federal spending, health reform and whether Coons is a Marxist - a label O'Donnell has repeatedly ascribed to him.

But much of the 90-minute conversation focused on O'Donnell, who comes to the racve with a well-documented history of controversial remarks about evolution, witchcraft and even masturbation.

(Opinion: Milbank on the debate)

Moderators Wolf Blitzer of CNN and Nancy Karibjanian, a local news anchor, repeatedly pressed O'Donnell on some of those topics, and the Republican stumbled a few times - most notably when Blitzer asked her if she still believes, as she once said in a TV interview, that "evolution is a myth."

"What I believe is irrelevant," O'Donnell finally said after deflecting the question twice. "What I will support in Washington, D.C., is the ability for the local school system to decide what is taught in their classrooms and what I was talking about on that show was a classroom that was not allowed to teach creationism as an equal theory as evolution. That is against their constitutional rights and that is an overreaching arm of the government."

O'Donnell also struggled to answer Karibjanian's request that she name a recent Supreme Court decision she disagrees with.

"Oh, gosh," O'Donnell said. "Give me a specific one, I'm sorry."

"Actually, I can't," Karibjanian replied, "because I need you to tell me which ones you object to."

"I'm very sorry," O'Donnell said. "Right off the top of my head, I know that there are a lot, but I'll put it up on my Web site, I promise you."

The Delaware Senate race has attracted national attention ever since tea party-backed O'Donnell's stunning GOP primary victory in August over moderate Republican Mike Castle.

The attention continued into the fall, thanks in part to a rich library of O'Donnell video clips - she was a frequent guest in the 1990s on Bill Maher's TV program "Politically Incorrect."

One such clip, in which O'Donnell spoke of dabbling in witchcraft, has become a staple of late-night television mockery.

But the attention doesn't square with the reality of the race, which is nowhere near as tightly contested as House and Senate contests elsewhere across the country.

Despite support from the tea party and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, O'Donnell lags far behind Coons in all polls, including one from the University of Delaware earlier this month that gave Coons a 24-point lead.

Delaware's electorate has a long tradition of supporting Democrats and moderate Republicans; the seat O'Donnell and Coons are fighting for was held until 2009 by Vice President Biden.

O'Donnell tried again and again during Wednesday's debate to take the focus off herself and place it on Coons, smiling and shaking her head whenever he spoke and reminding voters that as New Castle county executive he supported tax increases. She also tried to contrast her Catholic faith to what she called Coons's "Marxist beliefs."

Coons countered several times that there simply weren't enough minutes in the debate to point out all the misstatements in O'Donnell's remarks. On the allegation of Marxism, he explained to viewers that O'Donnell was drawing that label from an article he wrote in college in which he described himself as a "bearded Marxist."

"It's clear on the face of it, it was a joke," Coons said, adding in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the 1950s-era, anti-Communist McCarthy hearings: "I am not now, nor have I ever been, anything but a clean-shaven capitalist."

Coons also did not shy away from contrasting his own views with those of O'Donnell on the policies of the Obama administration and the role of government. He lauded President Obama's "Race to the Top" education reforms, criticized O'Donnell for viewing food stamps and other safety-net programs as fostering a "culture of dependency," and said he supported the health reform bill and challenged O'Donnell to give an example of where it has increased costs.

Coons also promised to support a repeal of the U.S. military's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and emphasized his support of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.

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