Christine O'Donnell's 'not a witch' ad: Can she regain control of her image?

Her new TV ad proclaiming 'I am not a witch' is a bid to regain control of her image in Delaware's Senate race. But Christine O'Donnell's real task is to convince voters she shares their concerns.

Rob Carr/AP
Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell is seen during an interview after attending a rally, Oct. 1, at her new campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Del.

In Christine O’Donnell’s new TV ad, the first words you hear are “I am not a witch.”

Wow. Why would Delaware’s GOP Senate candidate lead with her chin and refer to her old statements about dabbling in witchcraft as a youth? Isn’t that something a candidate would prefer voters forget?

Yes. But Ms. O’Donnell’s ad is an attempt to reclaim control of the shaping of her own image. That’s a priority goal for any politician who has been put on the defensive, as O’Donnell has. Her advisers must think she has to use the word “witch,” and then contrast it with her telegenic, normal appearance, to try to overcome that particular campaign glitch.

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In a way, that’s not the most ambitious part of the ad. After she disposes with the witchcraft thing, O’Donnell immediately says, “I’m nothing you’ve heard. I’m you.”

And that’s the point here. O’Donnell may need to convince Delaware voters that she indeed shares their concerns – that she’s an ordinary person – if she’s to overcome the substantial gap between herself and Democratic candidate Chris Coons shown by the polls.

That’s about more than overcoming the off-message stuff about witchcraft, her misstatements on education credentials, and talk about China’s plans to take over America. It’s also about softening the basic "tea party" message of anger about big government and Washington fiscal irresponsibility, and making it palatable for a state that’s fairly moderate.

A recent Fox News poll found that only about 30 percent of Delaware voters describe themselves as “angry” about the way the federal government is working. Another 30 percent say they are dissatisfied, but not angry. O’Donnell has to figure out a way to put these two groups together if she’s going to win in November.

And her ad isn’t angry-sounding at all. O’Donnell is a practiced small-screen performer, and as it goes on she shakes her head and expresses quiet, rueful regret about things such as “politicians who think back-room deals are the way to stay in office.” Contrast this with ads for Carl Paladino, another tea party favorite who’s running for New York governor. They’re a blast furnace of anger about the mess in Albany and his opponent, “career politician Andrew Cuomo.”

(The O’Donnell ad is well made, by the way, even though it is a simple one-camera shot of her talking torso. The background is lovely, the lighting expensive, and O’Donnell herself very smooth. Pretty good for a candidate who had only $20,374 in her campaign cash on hand at the end of August.)

There’s not much time left before the election, though, so O’Donnell’s campaign will have to move beyond reintroducing its candidate pretty soon. The next step in Campaign Strategy 101 would be an attempt to redefine the opponent. So look for ads soon that focus, not on O’Donnell, but on Mr. Coons – not just his college “bearded Marxist” days, but also his current tenure as New Castle County executive. Coons hasn’t resigned to run for the Senate, and that presents O’Donnell with two possible lines of attack: He’s cheating the county while he runs for higher office while remaining on the payroll, and he’s a career politician who’s still in office.

IN PICTURES: Who's who: Christine O'Donnell & Sarah Palin

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