In their nationally-televised debate Wednesday, Delaware U.S. Senate candidates Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons each displayed polarizing views of government and contempt for the way each has been characterized in this campaign.
O'Donnell, a former marketing consultant and Tea Party favorite who has made two failed bids for the Senate since 2006, attacked her opponent as a "rubber stamp" for the Obama administration. While Coons, her Democratic opponent and a county executive, warned O'Donnell would be a partisan legislator with "extreme" views.
"Ms. O'Donnell has experience running for office but no experience running anything," Coons said. "She's focused too much on the issues that make good sound bites."
O'Donnell called Coons a politician who "promises to support the Reid-Obama-Pelosi agenda lock, step and barrel. That's not bipartisanship," she said.
While the candidates sparred over the stimulus and the health care law, the war in Afghanistan and campaign finance reform, some of the most heated exchanges during the 90-minute forum at the University of Delaware surrounded O'Donnell's past statements on hot-button social issues.
O'Donnell, who made several appearances on TV talk shows in the 1990s, tried to dismiss attention on her remarks about homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex, masturbation and evolution as irrelevant to her candidacy.
Coons avoided bringing up O'Donnell's problems with personal finance, allowing the debate moderators to raise the issue. When he suggested that such talk was a distraction to the real issues in the campaign, O'Donnell interjected with a joke.
"You're just jealous that you weren't on 'Saturday Night Live,'" O'Donnell laughed.
When asked, repeatedly and directly, O'Donnell refused to say whether she still believes evolution is a "myth" and she made light of her comments on witchcraft, to which one of her own campaign ads alludes. She previously said she "dabbled in witchcraft" years ago.
When pressed about a college newspaper article entitled "Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist," Coons said it had been written in jest. "I am not now nor have I ever been anything but a clean-shaven capitalist," he said to laughs, invoking the tone of a witness before a congressional panel investigating communism in the 1950s.
On the issue of taxes, O'Donnell called for wholly extending the Bush tax cuts set to expire in January, while Coons said he wanted to extend only "those tax cuts that have the best chance of getting our economy going again."
O'Donnell warned the new health care law would put Uncle Sam in the examination room and should be repealed -- a line Coons quipped was a "good slogan ... [but] how does this bill actually put Uncle Sam in the examination room?"
On Afghanistan, Coons said he was concerned that after 10 years of war "it's a conflict that doesn't have a reasonable end in sight," suggesting he favored a timetable for withdrawal. O'Donnell pounced, saying such a policy would "simply embolden the terrorists."
O'Donnell struggled to name a recent Supreme Court case with which she disagreed, promising to post a list later on her website. Coons cited the Citizens United decision, which has significantly weakened campaign finance laws passed by Congress.
Before the debate, O'Donnell appeared to lower expectations for her performance, calling Coons a "two-time national debate champion" and "a gifted and experienced orator."
But O'Donnell quickly moved beyond early shows of nervousness to persistently and confidently make her points. Coons at several points accused O'Donnell of distorting the facts and drowning out the conversation with her "diatribes."
O'Donnell trails Coons by 19 points in the latest CNN/Time poll released today.
O'Donnell has captivated the political world in the month since she defeated Republican establishment favorite Rep. Mike Castle in the Delaware primary, raising more than $3 million from supporters nationwide.
But O'Donnell has also drawn intense public scrutiny of her personal finances and provocative past statements that have led some voters to question her suitability for office.
"I am not a witch ... I am you," O'Donnell said in one recent campaign ad -- a line which drew a sharp rebuke from Coons. "She's not me, and she's not Delaware," Coons said on ABC News' "Top Line" Wednesday.
Coons is believed to have the strongest support in the northern portions of Delaware, including New Castle County, where he leads the local government as county executive.
O'Donnell's supporters are dominant in the rural farm towns of Sussex, the southernmost of Delaware's three counties, where her campaign signs populate the country roads that run past farmers' markets and lead to the shore.
"Christine O'Donnell's the way I'm gonna go," said Clayton Townsend, a 53-year-old propane distributor in Georgetown, the seat of Sussex County. "Chris Coons is just another typical Democrat who likes to tax and spend, and I'm just not going to tolerate that."
"I just think she's a down to earth person," Townsend said of O'Donnell. "She's coming from nothing, which is basically how I built my life, from nothing."
But Sussex is not entirely friendly territory for the political novice, O'Donnell.
"I'm not a Christine O'Donnell fan," said Maria Brittingham, 43. "I've heard that she was not using her money properly, that she was using it for her own personal business."
"I hope tonight's debate is a debacle. I hope she impales herself," said a Coons supporter who would not give her name. The woman said O'Donnell's victory in the Republican primary over long-serving congressman Mike Castle has made Delaware a "laughing stock."
Castle announced Wednesday that he would not endorse O'Donnell or any candidate in the race. "There were some personal issues and other aspects of my primary campaign that were very disquieting," Castle told NPR. "And for that reason I think [it] best just to leaving it alone."
O'Donnell and Coons will face off again tomorrow in a lunchtime debate at the Rotary Club of Wilmington, according to the Associated Press. They are also scheduled to debate at Widener University Law School on Oct. 19.