In Del., O'Donnell Survives Debate With Coons : It's All Politics Christine O'Donnell appeared comfortable on TV; her rival Chris Coons more in command of facts.
NPR logo Christine O'Donnell Survives Debate With Frontrunner Chris Coons

Christine O'Donnell Survives Debate With Frontrunner Chris Coons

U.S. Senate candidates Democrat Chris Coons and Republican Christine O'Donnell during a televised debate at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del., Jacquelyn Martin, Pool/AP Photo hide caption

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Jacquelyn Martin, Pool/AP Photo

CNN's Wolf Blitzer was engaging in a bit of hyperbole when he characterized Wednesday night's U.S. Senate debate at the University of Delaware as perhaps one of the most "widely watched" events of the 2010 campaign season.

But there is little doubt that many people tuned into CNN just to see Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party darling who - save for a highly publicized ad that had her declaring she's "not a witch" - has essentially gone underground since her stunning primary victory over U.S. Rep. Mike Castle in the state's GOP primary last month.

What curious viewers saw was O'Donnell, supremely comfortable in front of the camera, essentially hold her own against Democratic nominee Chris Coons, the state's New Castle County executive who holds a comfortable lead going into the Nov. 2 election.

It was interest in O'Donnell, already a parodied on Saturday Night Live, and not necessarily the not-so-close-contest, that prompted CNN to televise live nearly the first hour of the 90-minute debate. (The cable network broke away for the final rescue at the Chilean mine.)

The bar for O'Donnell going into the debate was "really low" - and that was in the words of her ad man, Fred Davis, interviewed on CNN before the debate, moderated by Blitzer and Nancy Karibjanian of Delaware First Media.

After all, since her stunning Sarah Palin-aided victory over Castle, the conservative pundit's past has haunted her: from long-unpaid college tuition bills and a foreclosure action on her home, to statements that she dabbled in witchcraft as a young woman, evidence that she overstated her academic credentials, and her assertion that China had a plan to take over the United States.

So, the bottom line? O'Donnell relentlessly attempted to link Coons to the "Washington elite," suggested repeatedly that he would "rubber stamp" the Obama administration's agenda, and sought to portray herself as beholden to no party.

Coons attempted to project seriousness, experience, and a history that suggests he can ease the bitter partisanship in Washington. Both came out tough and prepared - though O'Donnell was eventually stumped by one question: what recent Supreme Court decisions she did not agree with. (She'll post an answer on her website, she promised.)

O'Donnell's television experience (she has appeared frequently on air as a conservative voice, including multiple guest spots on comedian Bill Maher's show) showed - she was clearly more comfortable in front of the camera.

Coons, naturally more dour and tossing around government acronyms with ease, treated the event as a job interview, emphasizing his experience in business and as a county executive.

But he, like O'Donnell, threw some elbows. He accused O'Donnell of pursuing a "narrow partisan agenda," and, following one of O'Donnell's more meandering and contradictory answers, quipped: "A fascinating question that really makes no sense..."

The moderators pushed the candidates to answer serious questions from whether they support repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (Coons does, O'Donnell says that it should be up to all the military leaders - though the ban on openly gay servicemembers is a Congress-passed law), to the way ahead in Afghanistan (Coons says after 10 years there should be a negotiated settlement; O'Donnell said she opposes what she characterized as a "random-time withdrawal.")

When pressed on why voters should trust her on financial issues when she's had so many problems of her own, O'Donnell suggested that people of Delaware could relate to her struggles.

And Coons, scion of a wealthy family, appeared to agree: he did not pursue the issue. But when she defended her comments on China - including her one-time suggestion that she was privy to that country's secret plans - Coons grinned and reported that he had never been in possession of any such information.

O'Donnell would not directly answer a question about whether she believed in evolution, and at one point, in the context of debate about a Muslim center and mosque proposed not far from the World Trade Center site,  suggested that "communities decide" Constitutional rights including those involving free speech and the religious freedom.

And she dismissed her more controversial comment on witchcraft and abstinence as having been made on a comedy show more than a decade and a half ago.

It was a lively, interesting 90 minutes. They both got in their shots, and both gave voters - and the curious - an idea of what they could expect of them in Washington.

And on one point both candidates agreed- voters in Delaware have a clear choice. Ironically, for O'Donnell, her most powerful message of the night, given the nation's electoral environment was this: "I've had to fight my party to be here on this stage to win the nomination, and to some extent I am still fighting my party. "

It is that fight with her own party that may ultimately lead to her loss.

In this viewer's opinion, the star of the night was Karibjanian, who handled her duties with firmness and aplomb, asking the tough questions and, almost miraculously, preventing stump speeches and platitudes. Here's a vote for Karibjanian in 2012 - in the role of presidential debate moderator.