Delaware GOP Senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell faced off against her opponent, Democrat Chris Coons, in a nationally televised debate Wednesday night. It was a big moment on a big stage for someone whose first general election television ad opened with her saying, “I am not a witch.”
So, how did she do?
Well, Ms. O’Donnell definitely did not turn into a pumpkin, if you’ll allow a little mixing of metaphors. She was poised, articulate, and rattled off her talking points like a pro. In that sense, she surpassed expectations.
But Mr. Coons was no slouch either. Coons, New Castle County executive, at times delved so deeply into policy detail that he sounded as if he was on stage at a Brookings Institution seminar. If nothing else, the Delaware Senate debate will probably be the only time CNN has ever broadcast live a discussion of Delaware county bond ratings.
That said, the debate featured lots of fire and brimstone. Coons went after O’Donnell in his opening statement, saying some of her policy positions are “extreme” for Delaware. O’Donnell returned the sentiment, saying of her opponent, “if you’ve ever questioned whether America is a beacon of freedom and justice, then he’s your guy.”
Delaware voters will be the ones to determine the debate’s outcome. Polls have shown Coons about 20 percentage points ahead, so O’Donnell must shake things up if she's to make the race more competitive. That said, here are three questions the debate as a whole raised:
Was it too harsh? Conventional wisdom holds that the candidate who comes across as more likeable wins point in a first debate. Both tried to smile – and O’Donnell in particular, a former talk-show regular, appeared comfortable in the setting. But smiles soon faded, and both candidates had moments when they seemed querulous. Nobody won the congeniality contest.
O’Donnell at one point said, “more people support my Catholic faith than his Marxist beliefs.” Coons at another point said of O’Donnell that she had launched into “a diatribe.”
Whose theme won? Conventional political wisdom also holds that the candidate who establishes a theme and then refers back to it in answers (no matter what the questions are) succeeds better than one who is all over the place. Coons seemed to be running with the “extreme” thing, and did his best to draw distinctions between himself O’Donnell on such issues as abortion and the teaching of evolution. (On the latter point, O’Donnell favors allowing local schools to teach creationism as a valid alternative to evolution, in case you were wondering.)
O’Donnell’s theme may have been “tax man.” That’s what she calls Coons in an attack ad she’s put up on the Web. Early on, she charged that the election of Coons to the Senate would cost individual Delaware voters $10,000 right off. She kept repeating the word “tax” at virtually every opportunity. We’ll bet that was on the short list of her talking points.
Will any slip grow into a gaffe? Game-changing debate gaffes aren’t always apparent right off. Sometimes, it takes the echo chamber of subsequent media coverage to enlarge a misstatement in voters’ minds.
Did O’Donnell err by appearing to flub an answer about which recent Supreme Court decisions she would disagree with? Some of her critics have seized on that as evidence confirming that she is a lightweight.
Did Coons make a mistake by saying “Wolf, there’s so much to talk about there” after almost every O’Donnell answer? After the first two times, some might have found that an annoying tic, akin to Al Gore’s eye-rolling during a 2000 debate with George W. Bush.
Here's one final bonus question: Will Wolf Blitzer ever get an interview with Christine O’Donnell? During the debate O’Donnell noted that the CNN anchor and debate co-host had been pestering her for a sit-down chat. So far, the stage at the University of Delaware is the closest Mr. Blitzer has come to this goal.