Del. Senate Race Puts State At Political 'Epicenter'

On Wednesday night, NPR's Robert Siegel attended the debate between Republican Christine O'Donnell and Democrat Chris Coons, running in Delaware's Senate race. We find out what some of their supporters are saying, and hear directly from Coons and from surrogates for O'Donnell. Coons has a double-digit lead over O'Donnell in every poll.

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This time last year, the U.S. Senate seat from Delaware, once held by Joe Biden, looked very likely to change party hands. A popular moderate Republican had announced for the seat, but when he was defeated in a bruising primary, the tables turned.

And my co-host, Robert Siegel, reports that people in Delaware, unaccustomed to the national spotlight, now speak of their state as the epicenter of politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

It wasn't just national media on the University of Delaware campus last night, dozens of international reporters came up from Washington for a debate in a race that the polls say isn't close, and that runs counter to national trends. The Republican is far behind. But earlier this year, she came from behind to win the primary, and then there was a commercial.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

CHRISTINE O: I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you.

SIEGEL: It was a reference to her past admission of dabbling in a little witchcraft, and some exaggerations, and some personal financial woes. And it was a declaration of authenticity.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

DONNELL: I'll go to Washington, and do what you'd do. I'm Christine O'Donnell, and I approve this message. I'm you.

SIEGEL: Christine O'Donnell is a 41-year-old conservative activist with Sarah Palin looks. Despite our several requests, she has not given us an interview. In September, she was the Tea Party giant killer who defeated long-time Republican Csongressman Mike Castle in the primary. And now she was saying, I'm you, me, the one who took 23 years to get a bachelors degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

I asked her Democratic opponent about that, 47-year-old Chris Coons, the Newcastle County executive, was the graduation speaker in his senior year at Amherst, and then earned degrees from Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School.

CHRIS COONS: As I've gone around the state since that ad started running, lots of people are saying to me, she's not us. She's not me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SIEGEL: So, the first face-to-face debate on the University of Delaware campus in Newark between these candidates, matched two drastically different takes on who we are and what we value. She - the daughter of a big and not very devout Catholic family, who found evangelical religion and conservative politics in her 20s. He - the college Republican, son and stepson of Republicans, who changed parties after a semester in Kenya exposed him to poverty.

The Delaware campus, known for it's political apathy, was alive and loud last night with demonstrators. Kathy Adams, a 43-year-old technical writer and editor came with her 10-year-old daughter and a handwritten sign that she held up for me to read.

(Reading) I'm me, and I'm voting for Coons.

KATHY ADAMS: Yes.

SIEGEL: What does that mean?

ADAMS: Well, I was kind of offended when Christine said that she was me, and I'm a writer and editor. I'm not qualified to be a senator. And if she's me, I don't want to put her in the Senate, because I don't think she's qualified.

SIEGEL: The lettering is in black and orange. Any meaning to those colors?

ADAMS: Yes, the whole witchcraft thing.

SIEGEL: Halloween colors.

ADAMS: Halloween colors.

SIEGEL: Among the O'Donnell supporters, Stephen Fender of Newark held up a hand-lettered banner.

(Reading) The banner says, Chris Coons and your vote equals higher taxes.

STEPHEN FENDER: Right. I honestly believe that. He's raised property taxes. He wants to do away with the first time homebuyer tax credit. It's not good for the housing market. So you're going to put first time homebuyers out of the market.

SIEGEL: Of course, he would say he balanced budgets in Newcastle County. How'd he do it?

FENDER: Well, but if they'd sold more houses, wouldn't they have had more transfer tax revenue?

SIEGEL: What kind of work do you do?

FENDER: I'm a realtor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: You've had a rough year.

FENDER: Yes, I have. That's why I'm here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The debate was broadcast by CNN. Among the more interesting exchanges was this one on Afghanistan. O'Donnell says troop withdrawal should come only after the Afghans achieve certain benchmarks. Coons favors reductions that start next July.

(SOUNDBITE FROM POLITICAL DEBATE)

COONS: What reasonable prospect do you have for these gauzy benchmarks and timelines you suggest to ever actually result in a withdrawal? In Iraq, there was a modern nation. There was a central government. There was infrastructure in place.

In Afghanistan, there hasn't been a nation in decades. And so, despite our 10 years of incredible effort, we are not succeeding in building a nation. As you put it, if the benchmark is self-governance, stability, security - we had a decent shot at that in Iraq.

DONNELL: Well, if you remember when we were fighting the Soviets over there in Afghanistan in the '80s and '90s, we did not finish the job. So now, we have a responsibility to finish the job. And if you're going to make these politically correct statements that it's costing us too much money, you are threatening the security...

SIEGEL: And then there is the battle over their salad days. Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked O'Donnell if she believes what she once said on a late night comedy show - evolution is a myth.

DONNELL: What I believe is irrelevant.

WOLF BLITZER: Why is it irrelevant?

DONNELL: Because what I...

BLITZER: Voters want to know what you...

DONNELL: 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.

But please allow me at least the full minute to respond to what he said, because he said these statements that we made should be taken into consideration when casting your vote. So then, I would be remiss not to bring up the fact that my opponent has recently said that it was studying under a Marxist professor that made him become a Democrat. So, when you look at his position on raising taxes, which is one of the tenets of Marxism, not supporting eliminating the death tax, which is a tenet of Marxism, I would argue that there are more people who support my Catholic faith than his Marxist beliefs. And I'm...

SIEGEL: These are references, frankly wrenched out of context, from an article that Coons wrote as he was graduating from college, an article called "The Making of Bearded Marxist." He was describing his journey from Republican to Democrat, a change that alarmed his Republican friends.

COONS: And so they jokingly called me a bearded Marxist. If you take five minutes and read the article, it's clear on the face of it, it was a joke. Despite that, my opponent and lots of folks in the right wing media have endlessly spun this. I am not now, nor have I ever been, anything but a clean shaven capitalist.

SIEGEL: Democrat Chris Coons and Republican Christine O'Donnell are of the same generation and live in the same state. And there the similarities end. She is a telegenic crossover from late night TV, nominally a marketing consultant. Her father was a TV actor who filled in for Bozo the Clown. Coons is a highly educated, not very telegenic, but very articulate corporate lawyer who worked in the very successful family business.

To him, she is someone who is always running for something, never having run anything. To her, he's the kind of person who has been running government, and government just doesn't work.

This is Robert Siegel.

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