O’Donnell insists she can win on Election Day while Coons plays it cool

MILLSBORO, Del. — A defiant Christine O'Donnell implored supporters to get out and vote on Election Day, claiming her upstart candidacy is surging against Democratic nominee Chris Coons.

“We don't need another rubber stamp in Washington,” O'Donnell told an overwhelmingly friendly crowd Thursday night at a 9/12 Patriots rally in Sussex County, the heart of Republican country in Delaware, a generally Democratic-friendly state. 

Despite polls showing a sizable gap between O'Donnell and Democratic nominee Chris Coons, the Republican struck a confident tone, challenging Coons to additional debates and criticizing the Democrat for ducking her.

“My opponent is obviously scared,” the Tea Party favorite told The Hill in an interview after the Sussex County event, adding that she received word late Thursday that Coons was pulling out of a debate originally scheduled for Delaware State University on Sunday.

O’Donnell said she suspected the scheduling conflict is simply an excuse to avoid her, adding that her campaign offered to shift its schedule to accommodate Coons.

But Coons’s campaign confirmed its candidate had another event to attend, and in a move that could reflect the Democrat’s confidence, said there would be no more debates between the two candidates.

“We've had five debates in the state of Delaware,” said Coons campaign spokesman Daniel McElhatton. “Delawareans know where Chris Coons stands, and they know where Christine O'Donnell stands. There's no lack of clarity there."

The candidates met twice this week in what proved to be testy exchanges, resulting in some unwanted headlines for the Republican.

In one exchange, comments about the First Amendment made national news after O'Donnell appeared to question whether the separation of church and state was indeed prescribed by the Constitution. Her campaign said afterward that she was only pointing out that the exact phrase isn’t present in the founding document.

“We were driving back to the office giving each other high-fives after that debate,” O'Donnell said. “We were shocked that my comments were so misrepresented.”

O’Donnell on Thursday was speaking to conservatives in Kent and Sussex counties, who turned out in large numbers during last month's primary, helping her to a stunning defeat of longtime Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.).

The Republican spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at a local firehouse, reminding voters that before her primary, she asked them to bring 10 friends to the polls on Election Day — “Well, when you come out and vote this time, I need you to bring 100 friends,” O'Donnell said.

One man in the audience held up a picture of a raccoon, with the words “Harry Reid's pet” in bold black lettering across the top — a reference to an interview Reid gave to The Hill last month in which he called Coons “my pet.”

Another two women wore purple T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Witch in training,” a reference to O'Donnell's first campaign ad, which opened with the line “I am not a witch.”

O’Donnell’s victory over Castle may have cost Senate Republicans an opportunity at taking Vice President Joe Biden’s former Senate seat; polls showed Castle would defeat Coons.

But O'Donnell made the case Thursday that not only can she win, she is surging against Coons.

She appealed for some help from the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which has left O'Donnell to fend for herself in an uphill race in this heavily Democratic state.

“I wish the NRSC would recognize what's happening here,” O'Donnell said.

The Tea Party favorite, who defeated a top NRSC recruit in Castle, wondered why the national party isn't spending on TV ads and mailers in the state to aid her campaign. The committee has given her campaign $42,000.

“Michael Steele has been helpful,” O'Donnell added, noting that the Republican National Committee chairman is expected in the state next week to campaign with her. “What the NRSC can do is really help educate the voters of Delaware about Chris Coons, and we hope they do.”

A Republican source argued that the NRSC has been doing just that in Delaware, pointing to an e-mail from the committee that highlighted Coons's shifting statements on the extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts after the Democrat's appearance on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.

“Apparently, Christine has missed the fact that it’s been the NRSC, and not her campaign, that has been pushing Chris Coons’s tax-hike flip-flops, which [ABC News chief political correspondent George] Stephanopoulos finally nailed him down on this week," the source said. "But Christine has never been one to let facts or reality get in the way of her embarrassing rhetoric.”  

For his part, Coons spent the day in Wilmington, deep in the Democratic bastion that is his home base of New Castle County.

He welcomed Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who attended a fundraiser for the Democratic nominee and later joined Coons at a lunch with local business leaders.

Durbin steered clear of criticizing O'Donnell, but noted that Coons was a strong candidate before the surprising result in the state's Republican Senate primary. Durbin said he has just as much confidence in Coons's candidacy now.

Caution has been the hallmark of the Coons campaign since O’Donnell arrived on the scene. Concerned about appearing overly partisan in a state that prizes civility in its politics, Coons has pitched himself as an independent consensus-builder.

In a debate Wednesday, Coons named Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Richard Lugar (Ind.) as Republicans he would work with as a member of the Senate. O'Donnell named Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.).

On Thursday, Coons shifted his stance on the extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, signaling that he would be open to extending the cuts across the board "if we're able to reach a bipartisan agreement that also extends other tax cuts that are critical to getting our economy going again.”

It was a move that could play to the political center.

For the most part, the Coons camp is content to keep the national attention on O'Donnell. The Democrat's events are decidedly lower-key.

Still, Coons has engaged O'Donnell more frequently over the past week, and on Thursday, he pushed back against the latest Rasmussen poll that showed O'Donnell creeping within 11 points of him.

Coons questioned the poll's methodology, saying, “I don't think she's surging. Look into the details of that poll.”

The Democrat said the more Delaware voters learn about O'Donnell's positions, the more they realize she is out of step with the state's voters and not prepared to reach across the aisle in Washington.

“The partisan divide in Washington is real, it's deep,” said Coons. “And one of the reasons folks have not responded well to my opponent's message is that it tends to be focused on sharpening the partisan divide, not on highlighting a real willingness to work across the aisle.”

The biggest remaining question in Delaware appears to be whether former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will come to the state before Election Day to rally for O'Donnell.

The Republican told The Hill on Thursday that she'd welcome Palin, but said her campaign has no confirmation on a Palin visit aside from what has been reported in the press.

One Delaware Democrat predicted that a Palin rally wouldn't do O'Donnell much good in a state this blue.

“I'm sure they'd love her in Sussex County,” the Democrat said. “But New Castle County would be horrified.”

— Updated at 11:20 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 22.