Tonight, CNN broadcast nationally the first debate between Republican Christine O’Donnell and Democrat Chris Coons, the candidates for Joe Biden’s old Senate seat in Delaware – at least most of it. The network broke away 53 minutes into the 90-minute debate to air live the rescue of the last two Chilean miners that have been trapped half a mile underground for the last two-and-a-half months. Frankly, the miners were much more interesting and inspiring.
That said, as political debates go, this one was lively. The opening statements sounded familiar themes this cycle with Coons, the New Castle County Executive, labeling O’Donnell an extremist and O’Donnell calling Coons a rubber stamp. O’Donnell, a Tea Party darling, upset establishment favorite Rep. Mike Castle last month handing Coons an opening for a seat Democrats had otherwise written off. A CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corporation survey out today shows Coons leading by 19 points amongst likely voters. O’Donnell, though, holds a healthy money lead which is why President Obama and Vice President Biden are schedule d to fundraise for Obama on Friday.
O’Donnell was the focus of some of the most pointed questions both from her opponent and the debate’s two moderators, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and longtime Delaware news anchor Nancy Karibjanian of Delaware First Media. O’Donnell was pressed on her youthful dabbling in witchcraft (she said her “faith has matured”), previous statements that she doesn’t believe in evolution (she declined to give her personal belief but said she supports teaching creationism on par with evolution) and what recent Supreme Court decisions she opposes (in a Sarah Palin moment, she couldn’t think of any). O’Donnell deflected much of the criticism with humor.
COONS: There’s been lots of discussion in the national media about things my opponent has said or done that I frankly think are a distraction from the core issues that Delawareans ask about – ask both of us about.
O’DONNELL: You’re just jealous that you weren’t –
COONS: What would you do in Washington?
O’DONNELL: — on “Saturday Night Live.”
COONS: I’m – I’m dying to see who’s going to play me, Christine.
O’Donnell, though, did have some tough moments including the Supreme Court gaffe, where Blitzer helpfully suggested Roe v. Wade. Early on in the debate she mixed up Iraq and Afghanistan when talking about withdrawal plans, a mistake Coons was quick to correct. And towards the end she seemed in over her head when pressed on health care reform. Blitzer asked how she would force people to buy health insurance, using an example of taxpayers being forced to pay for the care of an uninsured person’s visit to the emergency room. O’Donnell accused him of scare tactics. “You’re using a very small hypothetical group,” she said. Blitzer, Coons and Karibjanian were quick to correct that that group is not so small and was the driving force behind health care reform.
O’Donnell, a marketing consultant, was better at looking at the camera, acknowledging that debates are more about the audience at home than that in the studio. Coons, who reportedly studied tapes of Vice President Joe Biden’s debate with Sarah Palin, was less media savvy. At first he was wooden, reading his opening and closing statements, and ignoring O’Donnell’s pointed criticisms of him. But as he grew more relaxed he also grew bolder in returning O’Donnell’s barbs. “There’s so much to respond to Wolf, a minute may not be enough,” Coons often lamented. “I think it’s important to look closely at some of the things Ms. O’Donnell’s thrown out on her new web site. Most of them are untrue. Some of them are flat-out lies. Some of them are mischaracterizations. Some are just factually untrue. So, I’m not going to stop every single time there’s something she throws out that I disagree with or I think is factually untrue,” he said at one point, clearly losing his patience.
O’Donnell threw plenty of criticisms at Coons, accusing him of raising taxes, of being “Harry Reid’s pet,” a trust fund baby and of having “Marxist beliefs.” All of which Coons scoffed at. At times Coons could hardly hide his disdain for O’Donnell. “She doesn’t understand the complexity,” was a sentiment he often expressed in his explanations.
The end of the debate, which I watched on CSPAN, included a rapid fire round of questions from students at the University of Delaware in Newark, where the debate was being held. A quick summary: O’Donnell is opposed to the Ground Zero mosque and believes New York politicians that support it will suffer at the polls; Coons believes it’s in bad taste but says it should go forward. Coons is pro-choice and pro-embryonic stem cell research; O’Donnell is pro-life, even in cases of rape and incest, and anti-embryonic stem cell research. Coons is anti-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; O’Donnell said it’s not her decision to make and she’d respect whatever the Pentagon decides. O’Donnell said she doesn’t support abolishing the Department of Education. Coons said he’s for combating climate change; O’Donnell accused him – or rather his family’s company W. L. Gore – of benefiting monetarily from the climate change bill (they company makes parts that go into fuel cells), a charge he said baffled him. O’Donnell said she liked some of Obama’s policies including his current strategies in Afghanistan and Yemen and his use of drones. O’Donnell was for the now-pocketed plan to expand drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf; Coons was against it. It went on like this for a while, but honestly, I started flipping back and forth to the rescue of the miners at this point. It was clear the debate wasn’t going to be a game changer. And may I just say: yay, Chile!