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Christine O'Donnell roiling Delaware's GOP establishment

Christine O'Donnell has surged ahead of nine-term Congressional incumbent Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware's Republican Senate primary, much to the distress of the party's leadership.

By Philip ElliottAssociated Press Writer / September 13, 2010

Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, addresses supporters during a Tea Party Express news conference Tuesday in in Wilmington, Del. in support of her election bid.

Rob Carr/AP/File

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Dover, Delaware

Arms linked, Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell and her conservative backers kick up their heels and clap to the strains of an original song.

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"Look out Washington, D.C., 'cause we are on a roll and we're rocking across this country with a message to be told."

It's a tune that's unnerving the Republican establishment in Delaware, which fears being felled by swift kicks from O'Donnell — and conservative tea party activists.

The contest in Delaware has become a battle pitting O'Donnell's fervent grassroots supporters against Republican heavyweights. The race is shaping up to be a measure of the anti-establishment sentiment that views incumbency as a handicap and political inexperience as a valued quality.

Not longer after tea party-backed Joe Miller in Alaska stunned incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary, the party's establishment is furiously trying to avoid a similar outcome in the Delaware primary on Tuesday. Republican leaders, top strategists and even the Delaware state party chairman have taken the unusual step of openly working to defeat O'Donnell and ensure the nomination of their preferred candidate, nine-term U.S. Rep. Mike Castle.

Republicans, who have an outside chance of capturing the majority in the Senate in November, see Castle as their best chance of winning the seat long held by Vice President Joe Biden. The moderate Castle is a former governor and has been the state's lone congressman since 1993.

But O'Donnell, who has lost twice in statewide races, won't be cowed.

"We cannot elect any more liberals to Washington, D.C., especially ones who wear the banner of being a Republican. It is an honor to be a Republican," she told supporters.

Establishment Republicans have been relentless, calling O'Donnell unelectable, a fraud and a liar. But in a challenge to the Republican leadership and in a boost to O'Donnell, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina just came out with an endorsement saying she will "stand strong for the principles of freedom."

This weekend, Delaware Republicans set about knocking on 10,000 doors, making tens of thousands of phone calls and flooding mailboxes with fliers that explain both candidates' records. In a primary that could draw just 30,000 voters, party officials are going all-in to defend one of their top recruits and discredit O'Donnell.

"She's not a viable candidate for any office in the state of Delaware," said the state party chairman, Tom Ross, who is backing Castle. "She could not be elected dog catcher."

State Republican officials have done everything in their power to take down O'Donnell. For example:

—After a conservative radio host took O'Donnell to task over incorrect claims she won two counties during her 2008 Senate bid against Biden — in fact, she won none of the state's three counties — Republican officials gleefully shared the audio.

—When a New Jersey university last week finally awarded O'Donnell a degree she had claimed for 21 years, Republicans called it the latest example of her exaggerations.

—O'Donnell's financial reports show donors are picking up her rent and utilities at a condominium that doubles as a campaign headquarters. Republicans hasten to note O'Donnell's dire personal finances that include threats of liens, foreclosures and an Internal Revenue Service tax audit. Republicans then questioned O'Donnell's ability to handle tax dollars, and wondered about the marketing consultant's reporting just $5,800 in income during a 15-month period.

—The Delaware Republican Party on Thursday filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing O'Donnell and the Tea Party Express of violating FEC rules that restrict coordination between candidates and outside political organizations. The complaint, filed for the party by campaign finance lawyer and former FEC chairman Michael Toner, states that the Tea Party Express solicited donors to contribute to O'Donnell and that O'Donnell and the group worked jointly on advertising, breaching agency rules.

"It is a shame the party is doing this," O'Donnell said after a rollicking dusk rally across from the Delaware Capitol this past week. "Because I believe that we have the right principles to win this election."

O'Donnell and her supporters just as eagerly point to Castle's votes in support of the 2008 Wall Street bailouts, which were championed by Republican President George W. Bush, and Castle's support for climate change legislation that has stalled in Congress. Those votes are immensely unpopular with conservative Republican voters.

"He's getting harder and harder to support," said Carl Williams, a retiree from Camden. "Castle should get off the Republican ticket. He says he's a Republican, but he's not a conservative."

Others say Castle sides too often with Democrats; in a mailing, O'Donnell calls him "the most liberal Republican in Congress."

"He's gone too far left," said Bob Haller, a retiree who carried a sign saying "Castle Voted Against God in Our Pledge of Allegiance."

"He's become nothing but a rubber stamp," he said.

The California-based Tea Party Express has pledged $250,000 to help bolster the cash-strapped O'Donnell. It's not clear they will reach that goal; so far, officials have disclosed less than $150,000 in federal elections filings.

In campaign reports filed on Aug. 25, O'Donnell reported raising about $260,000 for her bid and had about $20,000 in the campaign bank account. Castle had raised $3.2 million and had $2.6 million cash on hand, which is why he has been able to spend freely on mail and television ads criticizing his rival.

The winner of the Republican nomination will face county executive Chris Coons. Unlike Republican-leaning Alaska, the Democratic nominee would have a better shot at the seat against O'Donnell, who lost to Biden 65-35 percent in 2008.

Hard feelings among Republican voters could linger well past Nov. 2.

"It angers me. I don't think no Republican should really go after any Republican," said Bill Valentine, who's from Hockessin.

He's not alone.

Sarah Palin, whose endorsements have proved beneficial to other conservative candidates, announced Thursday that she is backing O'Donnell, hoping again to thwart insiders' calculations as she did in Alaska with Miller.

"She understands the politics of personal destruction," O'Donnell said of Palin, "and I think that's why she got involved."