Senate races

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

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.

{mosads}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

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

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

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.

Tags Chris Coons Joe Biden John Cornyn
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