Debate gives O’Donnell a chance to catch up

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Christine O’Donnell, trailing badly in Delaware’s Senate race, needs to hit a home run in Wednesday night’s debate.

Since winning the Republican nomination out of nowhere in August, the Tea Party-backed O’Donnell has been widely lampooned and ridiculed for statements she has made in the past. But Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said Wednesday before the debate that she will have an advantage over Democrat Chris Coons.

“He’s really meeting Christine O’Donnell on her turf, in the sense that she has spent the last 20 years on various TV outlets,” Markell, a Democrat, told reporters.

Coons, the county executive in New Castle County, has been “focused on actually creating jobs and trying to run a county,” Markell said.

But political experts said O’Donnell will surprise those who have formed judgments based only on a few TV clips.

“She will do better than expected,” Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus told The Daily Caller. “People know her from her gaffes and from the caricature portrayed on Saturday Night Live. It would be surprising if she didn’t surpass that since the bar is set so low.”

The challenge for O’Donnell to catch up with Democrat Chris Coons is daunting. She is trailing by 18 to 21 percent in three polls released this week.

“The debate will offer a chance for her to make that sort of move,” says Jason D. Mycoff, an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware, where the debate is held. “She could come out swinging and use the debate to her advantage but she’s got a lot of ground to make up.”

Mycoff said the debate for the open Senate seat will be interesting because neither candidate “has faced this kind of pressure or attention in politics. Even though Coons has won an election before, he’s never been under the national microscope.”

That is a whole new world for both of them. And it’ll be interesting to see if both of them are able to stand up to that kind of pressure.”

It’s too much attention, according to Jacobus. “I don’t think this is a race that warrants this much national attention at all,” she told TheDC, citing how far behind O’Donnell is in the polls.

“Clearly the focus is on Delaware because of the unique personality and background of Christine O’Donnell,” she said, lamenting that the media scrutiny was not focused on more competitive races where it might make a difference.

“I don’t think either candidate expected to be debating under such intense media scrutiny,” said Philip Jones, a political science associate professor at the University of Delaware, pointed out. “Coons because he assumed he’d be facing Castle, which many pundits would have said was an easy race for the Republicans; and O’Donnell because this is her third run for the Senate but the first time she’s gotten such extensive media coverage.”

Still, Jones expects O’Donnell to perform well.

“As we know from Bill Maher’s extensive video vault, O’Donnell is no stranger to television appearances,” he said. “Her message tonight will presumably be different from those old shows, but I’d expect her to be as focused and clear in presenting her positions tonight as then.”

Jon Ward contributed reporting from Newark, Delaware.