Christine O'Donnell: three ways she could turn things around tonight

Polls suggest Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell is 20 points behind Chris Coons in Delaware. If she's going to turn things around, she needs to start at Wednesday's debate.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/file
Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell delivers remarks at Values Voter Summit in Washington on Sept. 17. O'Donnell will debate Democratic challenger Chris Coons Wednesday night.

Republican Delaware Senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell will debate her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, at the University of Delaware campus Wednesday night.

For Ms. O’Donnell, the math is stark: She’s 20 points or so behind in the polls. That means that for her the debate is much more important than it is for Mr. Coons.

What could she do to try to turn things around?

First of all, don’t act surprised by all the attention.

And there will be lots of attention – the first hour of the O’Donnell-Coons faceoff is scheduled to be broadcast live on CNN. When U of D started handing out tickets to students and the public on Monday, the line quickly burst free of the bounds of the Trabant University Center and extended outside, down the side of the building.

What’s going on here? You’d think one of the participants in the debate was going to show up dressed as a ... New Castle County Executive. (That’s Mr. Coons's current job.)

Second, define yourself.

Everybody’s heard all those stories about witchcraft dabbling, and so forth, but Wednesday night will be O’Donnell’s first and best chance to introduce herself to Delaware voters unfiltered. If her ads are any indication, she will continue to say of herself, “I’m you” – as in, “I’m a regular Delawarean.” This approach would be helped by lots of references to regular-person stuff, like struggles with money and her nonownership of any Ivy League degrees. (Coons has two from Yale.)

If unfortunate past statements come up, don’t get defensive. Just sigh, and say that everybody did stuff in their youth that they regret later. To an adult, what’s adolescence but a foreign country?

In her modified limited media rollout of recent days, in which she’s sat down for interviews with mainly local reporters, O’Donnell has done pretty well with this approach.

Third is the hard part: make the election about Coons as much you can.

In her ads, O’Donnell has already pivoted from the soft sell about herself to hard-edged attacks on her opponent. She’s running a spot called the “The Taxman” that mimics a horror movie trailer and depicts Coons as the revenue-raising scourge of New Castle County.

On stage it is probably better to attack while maintaining a smile, but O’Donnell is 20 points behind, so she has to shake things up somehow. It will be interesting to see what she tries.

And Coons?

His first and highest task is to not take victory for granted. Rep. Mike Castle may have done that in the GOP Senate primary – he still had lots of cash on hand near the end of the campaign that he appeared to be hoarding for the general election. Look what happened to him.

Congressman Castle has so far declined to endorse O’Donnell, saying that the primary was just too bitter and personal. But in a CNN interview set for broadcast tonight he gives credit to the Tea Party Express and other organizations which backed O’Donnell against him.

“They did an effective job of winning the race for her, and, you know, they’re probably going to be very effective in setting up the last few weeks of the general election as well, if I had to guess,” Castle tells CNN’s John King, according to an advance copy of the transcript.

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