NEWARK, DE | Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell faced off with Chris Coons Wednesday night in the first nationally televised debate between the two U.S. Senate candidates, with the Republican badly in need of a dramatic win to reduce the Democrats’ double digit lead.
The debate was contentious and free-wheeling, but O’Donnell failed to land many punches, much less a knock out, and was put on her heels several times when asked about her views on evolution, the Supreme Court, and her past financial problems.
Both candidates – appearing before a live crowd at the University of Delaware – were pressed on statements made when they were much younger.
Midway through the debate, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked O’Donnell, 41, if she still believed that evolution is “a myth,” as she stated in 1998.
“What I believe is irrelevant,” O’Donnell said. She said her past comment was in reference to schools that were “not allowed to teach creationism as an equal theory as evolution.”
“You learned your beliefs from an articulate intelligent Marxist professor … that should send chills up the spine of every Delaware voter,” O’Donnell said.
Coons said the “bearded Marxist” reference was a joke, and declared, “I am not now, nor have I ever been, anything but a clean shaven capitalist.”
O’Donnell tried to keep the debate – moderated by Blitzer and Nancy Karibjanian of Delaware First Media – away from her past statements, which have dribbled out on video over the last several weeks.
“This election cycle should not be about comments I made on a comedy show over a decade and a half ago,” she said, referring to her many appearances on “The Bill Maher Show.”
But Blitzer asked her why she cut a recent commercial that began with the line: “I am not a witch.”
“To put it to rest,” O’Donnell said.
She was able to sidestep, for the most part, a question about her problems with taxes, paying off college bills and a mortgage default. She said the tax issue was the result of a computer error by the Internal Revenue Service, and said she has struggled financially because she “didn’t come from a privileged, sheltered background as my opponent says he did.”
“I can relate to the thousands of Delaware families that are suffering right now. And I’m stronger for it,” she said.
Coons declined to attack her on her financial past, calling it a “distraction.” But that prompted one of the more awkward lines of the night. O’Donnell referred to the multiple skits on “Saturday Night Live” in which she has been mocked for her comment that she “dabbled in witchcraft,” among other things.
“You’re just jealous that you weren’t on Saturday Night Live,” O’Donnell said to Coons.
Coons said he was “dying” to find out who would play him. But for much of the debate his scorn for O’Donnell was barely disguised, and he risked appearing overly negative toward his opponent.
“It took a couple minutes to even understand what she was talking about,” he said at one point.
O’Donnell’s most consistent criticism of Coons was that he would “rubber stamp the spending policies coming from Washington,” as she sought to emphasize the nation’s problems with budget deficits and debt.
“Uncle Sam needs to be cut off,” O’Donnell said.
One of Coons’ most fuzzy answers was on whether he supported extending the Bush tax cuts for all brackets, or whether he agreed with President Obama that families making more than $250,000 a year should be taxed more than they currently are.
“I don’t think we should draw an arbitrary line at $250,000,” Coons said. “I think we should do those tax cuts that have the best chance of getting our economy going again.”
Pressed afterward, Coons adviser Karl Agne said the $250,000 line was “a completely arbitrary line” and said that if Coons were elected he would seek to push that line upwards. Agne would not say how far above $250,000 Coons would want the line.
“He’s had conversations with people who own small businesses who have expressed those concerns. He understands those concerns,” Agne said.
An O’Donnell spokesman said after the debate that they had proof that the multi-billion dollar corporation owned by Coons step-father, W.L. Gore and Associates – the makers of Gore-Tex – would profit from a cap and trade bill if it passed the Congress.
“His family will benefit from the national energy tax,” said Dave Yonkman, O’Donnell’s spokesman. “We can back that up.”
During the debate, O’Donnell said because W.L. Gore manufacturers fuel cells, it would benefit from any cap and trade legislation, were it to pass with a mandate to increase the use of alternative energies.
“Speaking of cap and trade, your family business stand to financially benefit from some environmental legislation under Bush,” O’Donnell said, appearing to mistakenly cite former President George W. Bush. “They make some of the stuff that will be required by these businesses to regulate cap and trade.”
Coons, who a spokesman said has stock in W.L. Gore but is not involved in day to day operations with the company, called that “quite a stretch.”
“Gore makes over 1,000 products … from implantable medical devices to dental floss to some membranes that are component parts that go into systems that go into fuel cells,” Coons said. “Fuel cells are not currently fielded broadly in the United States. It’s a cutting edge technology that some day has the promise of being a significant contributor to making a more energy efficient, cleaner transportation future.
“To the best of my knowledge there is no direct financial benefit” from a cap and trade bill to W.L. Gore, Coons said.
O’Donnell spokesman Yonkman said that W.L. Gore received over $1 million in the stimulus bill passed in 2009, and that it’s potential to reap government subsidies and mandate-driven profits from an energy bill were “boundless.” But he did not have any documentation to back up his claims.
Yonkman was also asked why O’Donnell could not name a recent Supreme Court decision that she disagreed with.
“She was caught off guard,” he said, but added that she did disagree with the Kelo vs City of New London which gave local governments expanded eminent domain powers.
Coons cited the Citizens United decision earlier this year, which had been an earlier topic in the debate, but could not name another recent decision he disagreed with either.