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The O'Donnell-Coons debate and survival of the fittest

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Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell and Democrat Chris Coons traded shots and personal attacks in a lively 90-minute debate in Newark, Del. The two candidates are vying for Joe Biden's seat in the U.S. Senate.

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 11:10 PM

Were she still a witch, Christine O'Donnell no doubt would have put a hex on Wolf Blitzer then and there.

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The CNN host, moderating the long awaited Delaware senatorial debate Wednesday night, was trying to get the Republican nominee to talk about her 1998 statement on the Bill Maher show that "evolution is a myth."

"Do you believe evolution is a myth?" Blitzer asked.

"I believe that the local ... " O'Donnell began, then started anew. "I was talking about what a local school taught, and that should be taught, that should be decided on the local community."

"Do you believe evolution is a myth?" the moderator repeated.

"Local schools should make that decision."

"What do you believe?"

"What I believe is irrelevant."

"Why is it irrelevant? Voters want to know."

"What I will support in Washington, D.C. is the ability of the local school system to decide what is taught in their classrooms," O'Donnell repeated.

The answer, though, was obvious: Of course she believes in evolution; she is a product of evolution herself. She has evolved from a very odd woman who spoke about the evils of masturbation and of mice with fully functioning human brains and of her experience in sorcery (but she didn't join a coven!).

She was, inevitably, not as bad as the cartoonish image that has emerged in recent weeks. And her opponent, Democrat Chris Coons, was dull and substantive, making himself an easy mark. He kept using the word "frankly" and complaining about how little time he had to refute O'Donnell's statements.

Still, even the highly evolved version of O'Donnell retained its ability to say and do embarrassing things. She read from her opening statement by moving her index finger down the page. She wore an expression that suggested she was trying not to laugh. She said that "a vote for my opponent will cost the average Delaware family $10,000 instantly" (that's quite a poll tax) and that the estate tax "is a tenet of Marxism."

And she was easily flummoxed -- as when Blitzer asked her: "What would you cut in the federal budget? And don't just say waste, fraud and abuse, because everybody says that."

O'Donnell replied that she would cut "waste, fraud and abuse."

She attempted to voice her support for a freeze on discretionary spending, but had trouble recalling the phrase: "Put a freeze on, um, on non dis--, uh, non disc, uh, discretionar-- on discretionary spending."

Asked to name a recent Supreme Court decision that she finds objectionable, O'Donnell replied, "Oh, gosh. Give me a specific one, I'm sorry." When the moderator declined to furnish one, the candidate offered: "I'm very sorry. 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."

O'Donnell also had some trouble figuring out where to place a zinger she had prepared for Coons. She delivered it, awkwardly, when he was actually defending her against "discussion in the national media about things my opponent has said or done that I frankly think are a distraction."

O'Donnell snorted and laughed. "You're just jealous that you weren't on Saturday Night Live!" she blurted out.

Coons gave an obliging smile. "I'm dying to see who's going to play me, Christine."

If SNL does do another O'Donnell sketch this week, script writers may be drawn to her assertion that "when we withdraw from Iraq, we need to make sure that there are benchmarks in place."

Blitzer asked Coons if he had a response.

"I suspect you meant withdraw from Afghanistan," Coons offered.

O'Donnell was surer of herself when accusing her opponent of being a communist. "I would argue that there are more people who support my Catholic faith than his Marxist beliefs," she posited, alluding to a 1985 college newspaper column in which Coons described himself -- jokingly, he says -- as a "bearded Marxist."

"I am not now nor have I ever been anything but a clean shaven capitalist," Coons replied.

It wasn't clear from his face what the bearded Blitzer thought of this exchange, but O'Donnell seemed to go out of her way to tweak the studiously neutral moderator. She told viewers that she had refused Blitzer's requests for an interview, and when Blitzer posed the fair question of what she would do about people who refuse to buy health insurance and then use the emergency room, O'Donnell informed the moderator that he was "using scare tactics to make people support this health-care bill."

Blitzer using scare tactics? This was an unorthodox charge. But O'Donnell is not an orthodox candidate. She warned of a collapsing dollar and American economy. She kept track of her opponent's time ("it says 'stop,'" she informed him). And she dismissed an earlier IRS lien against her as bogus and "all the more reason why we need to reform the IRS."

Yes, O'Donnell has evolved from her witchcraft days, but she still knows how to stir the pot.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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