Facing her opponent at a traditional campaign kickoff forum, Christine O’Donnell fielded the opening question, on Middle East peace, without her usual off-the-cuff patriotic zeal.
Instead, she responded with a more studied technique: She glanced down at the stack of papers before her, and noticeably read from her notes.
In the days after her renegade campaign for U.S. Senate scored a stunning Republican primary upset in Delaware, O’Donnell was finding out just what it meant to be, as she calls herself, “a citizen legislator.”
Moving beyond the moral crusades and patriotic anthems that have fueled her campaign, O’Donnell steered into the general election as a candidate with an often imprecise command of national policy.
Her jobs plan amounts to a temporary moratorium on the capital gains tax. Her foreign policy position can be summed up in her use of a Sarah Palin-like zinger: “We win, they lose.”
Of all the outsider candidates who have upended the Republican Party this election season, O’Donnell may be the most enigmatic, a polished social issues campaigner who has begun to distance herself from her past.
With charisma and “tea party” backing, she has a shot at the seat Vice President Joe Biden held for more than 30 years. Online donors have inundated her campaign in the days since her Tuesday primary election win, contributing almost $2 million.
Unlike fellow tea party upstart Sharron Angle in Nevada, O’Donnell does not have a legislative track record in local government. Unlike Rand Paul in Kentucky, she does not profess a working philosophy crafted from the nation’s vast array of domestic and foreign affairs issues.
Instead, O’Donnell has been devoted to the conservative and religious social issues that have been her political currency on the local and national stage. She has spoken passionately about promoting abstinence, reducing AIDS funding and the drawbacks of allowing women into military academies.
Republicans doubt she can win, and even her supporters acknowledge that O’Donnell does not appear quite ready for prime time. Yet they see her imperfections — along with emerging disclosures about personal financial troubles, controversial stands and questions about her own biography — as another reason to vote for her.
“That’s like me,” said Alice Williams, who has operated an appliance shop with her husband, Joe, in Wilmington for nearly 30 years. “She’s going to vote the way I want her to vote. I’m not looking for someone to wow me with professionalism.”
The race in Delaware has become a battle not just for the soul of the Republican Party, but one that may test how far voters will go to swap experience for change.
In running against Democrat Chris Coons, the county executive of New Castle County, O’Donnell faces an opponent more seemingly compatible with Delaware’s traditionally moderate political sensibilities — a wonkish official who more resembles lawmakers of the past than does the Palin-like TV sensation.
Philip Edward Jones, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Delaware, said voters in this small state soon will expect to hear O’Donnell outline her views on a wide range of issues.
But with just over six weeks until the general election, O’Donnell may not have the luxury of time that allowed Palin, Angle and Paul to sequester themselves after their primary victories and polish their presentation for voters.
“People are used to meeting the candidates personally and getting to know them as they campaign,” Jones said. “They have a reputation for being independent and thoughtful, in the same vein as New Hampshire.”
As the race has so far focused more on O’Donnell’s stunning victory and her past missteps — she earns little income, uses campaign funds to help pay for housing that doubles as a campaign office, and has faced outstanding college bills — the 41-year-old candidate has at times seemed frustrated that she cannot turn the spotlight onto policy issues.
Last week, she was named to a list of “most crooked candidates” by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is circulating an online petition to ask the U.S. attorney in Delaware to open a criminal investigation into O’Donnell’s use of campaign funds. The group also plans to ask the Federal Election Commission to review the campaign spending.
O’Donnell appears determined to put past headlines, many from her work as the founder of her moral advocacy group, the Saviours Alliance for Lifting Truth, behind her.
When asked during the forum if government should regulate sexual practices she has opposed — premarital sex, for example, and masturbation — she said her past statements were “made over 15 years ago.”
“But I can assure you, my faith has matured, and when I go to Washington, D.C., it will be the Constitution on which I base all of my decisions, not my personal beliefs,” she said.
She does oppose abortion in most cases, including rape and incest, and makes allowances only when the mother’s life is in danger.
In Washington, she would work to repeal the new healthcare law and wants to “begin to repeal the role of the federal government” in education.
To make Social Security solvent, she suggests possibly increasing the retirement age for future beneficiaries. But she is still reviewing the roadmap proposed by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) that calls for allowing younger workers to divert part of their Social Security tax to personal retirement accounts.
With cash flow and high-profile backing from Palin and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), O’Donnell will have the resources to mount a viable campaign and grapple with revelations yet to come. She has been cool to establishment Washington, which initially gave her little backing.
A scheduling conflict led her to postpone a meeting with the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who invited her to Capitol Hill on Friday to discuss strategy, though their staffs were scheduled to meet. Cornyn has sent $42,000 to her campaign, the maximum allowed and the amount almost all candidates receive.
Biden, campaigning for Coons in his home state Friday, told Democratic volunteers to take nothing for granted in what he expects will be a rough-and-tumble race. “Take this as serious as you possibly can,” Biden said in Wilmington.
Coons faces his own hurdles in energizing an electorate that had been poised to usher Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle, the former governor, to the Senate, before O’Donnell knocked him off during the primary.
National pundits now say Democrats are favored to retain the seat and polls show Coons ahead of O’Donnell by double-digit margins. But he must reach out not only to Democrats — many of whom repeatedly sent Castle to Washington — but also independents and moderate Republicans who will be considering O’Donnell.
Coons’ effort to assure moderate Delawareans that he would not be a rubber stamp for President Obama’s agenda was not helped by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who called him his “pet.” It was intended as a nickname by the sometimes tone-deaf majority leader but has been scooped up on Delaware talk radio as a knock against Coons’ independence.
“Chris is no one’s pet,” a campaign spokesman said.
Biden lauded Coons as a practitioner of what many here call “the Delaware way,” the pragmatic back-and-forth needed to solve problems.
“What is she for?” the vice president asked volunteers. “Make the choice on policy clear to the people of Delaware.”