O'Donnell, Coons face off in first debate before packed house

WILMINGTON, Del. — Just two days after her upset of Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) in the state's Republican Senate primary, Tea Party-backed Christine O'Donnell shared a stage with New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D) in their first meeting of the general-election contest.

Thanks to the format of the yearly candidate forum sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Delaware, the stage was shared by eight candidates, but the main attraction was the impending battle between O'Donnell and Coons. The result was a standing-room-only crowd in a packed auditorium.

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The forum was an early test for O'Donnell, who, while having run for federal office before, has never endured anything close to the national media storm that has descended upon her since she defeated Castle on Tuesday.

At times the pressure showed, but O'Donnell appeared to hold her own Thursday despite the intense glare. She repeatedly emphasized her concerns over the growth of government and stressed "private-sector solutions" on a range of questions.

She also pledged to introduce herself to the Delaware electorate, saying, "It's no secret that there's been a rather unflattering portrait of me portrayed."

The forum was a study in the contrasting styles of Coons and O'Donnell. Coons appeared steady Thursday, if not a bit boring — something that could actually prove an asset in this general election contest. He emphasized his experience as county executive while drawing contrasts between himself and O'Donnell without truly going on the attack.

"This race is not about ideology, but about ideas," he said. "Not about a narrow social agenda, but about who is going to fight to get this country back on track."

The Democrat pitched himself as independent of his party in Washington, saying, "I would not have supported the bailout," because he said it was done too fast and "put hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars at risk."

Borrowing a line from Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Coons suggested the race would be fought on issues important to Delaware voters, rather than in the national media spotlight. "It's often said that this is Joe Biden's seat," Coons said. "It's not. It's Delaware's seat."

Coons noted the state's long tradition of "constructive and civil debate," emphasizing, "I have not been worried about who would come in from out of state to endorse me or not."

Perhaps the greatest gulf between Coons and O'Donnell came on the question of whether they supported the recently passed healthcare law. Coons said he would work to implement the law "responsibly," noting that "while we implement healthcare, we have to contain costs without squelching innovation."

But O'Donnell called for the "full repeal" of the healthcare law, saying that "the federal government was never intended to be as invasive and intrusive into our lives as it is now."

The response elicited loud cheers from O'Donnell's supporters while garnering sustained boos from Coons backers.

There were no real fireworks between Coons and O'Donnell on Thursday, but the most eyebrow-raising question came about O'Donnell's past statements on sexuality.

An audience question asked whether she supported "the regulation of private sexual behavior." It was an apparent reference to statements she made in the mid-1990s opposing masturbation and pornography. O'Donnell espoused the anti-masturbation view on an MTV show promoting abstinence and in 1998 she wrote in a journal that viewing pornography was akin to adultery.

"That's personal!" an O'Donnell supporter shouted from the audience when the question was read.

"It is personal," O'Donnell agreed, but she went on to answer it while not referencing any specific past positions.

"Those questions come from statements I made over 15 years ago," said O'Donnell, who is Catholic and known as a staunch social conservative. She called the years-old statements a result of her newfound faith and beliefs, which she has said previously she discovered sometime in college.

O'Donnell said while "my faith has matured," if she gets to Washington, she would be guided by "the Constitution" rather than her personal beliefs.

In response, Coons added that he didn't think voters were interested in statements made by either of the candidates 15 years ago — a statement met with a broad smile and applause from O'Donnell.

The two candidates did split on social issues: They were asked about stem-cell research and abortion, specifically in cases of rape or incest. Coons reaffirmed his support for abortion rights, saying it should be "safe, legal and rare."

Calling it a difficult and emotional issue, O'Donnell recalled her personal history and her own conversion to a pro-life position.

O'Donnell did say she would support abortion in cases "where the life of the mother" was at risk. She recalled that her own family faced that situation with her sister in the past, though she didn't elaborate. O'Donnell called instances where the life of the mother is at risk "a personal family decision."

For his part, Coons largely steered clear of attacking O'Donnell on Thursday, as he did when he spoke to reporters Wednesday at a retail politicking stop in downtown Wilmington.

The first meeting of the candidates came against the backdrop of an internal battle raging in the Republican Party over support of O'Donnell's candidacy. The national party is coalescing behind her, or at least working extremely hard to create the impression that it is.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele called O'Donnell on Thursday afternoon to express his support and pledge backing from the national party. And National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) has pledged his financial support.

O'Donnell and Cornyn are set to sit down Friday at NRSC headquarters when the candidate travels to Washington. 

Even the chairman of the Delaware Republican Party, who famously said before the primary that O'Donnell "couldn't get elected dog catcher," released a statement Thursday calling for unity.

Chairman Tom Ross was one of O'Donnell's most stringent critics over the course of the primary and there was speculation that he would resign after O'Donnell's victory Tuesday. Ross said Thursday that he was staying but didn't mention O'Donnell by name in his statement.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who rankled some of his Senate colleagues with his last-minute endorsement of O'Donnell just a few days ahead of her primary with Castle, slammed the party in an e-mail to supporters of his Senate Conservatives Fund on Thursday.

"Following Christine O'Donnell's historic win on Tuesday, the Washington establishment launched an all out assault against me for supporting this principled candidate. They say she can't win and that by supporting her, I've helped lose the seat for Republicans," DeMint wrote in the e-mail, which solicited financial support for O'Donnell's campaign.

DeMint continued: "Well, I've been in the majority with Republicans who didn't have principles, and we embarrassed ourselves and lost credibility in front of the country. Frankly, I'm at a point where I'd rather lose fighting for the right cause than win fighting for the wrong cause," the senator wrote.