Wilmington, Delaware

When Christine O’Donnell and Chris Coons emerged from an ornate Hotel du Pont ballroom, the world media were ready for them. They’d debated for 45 minutes with few harsh words passing between them, and now reporters (and TV cameras) from the Irish, French, British, Asian, and American press were eager to pump them with questions.

But O’Donnell, the young (41), pretty, and very conservative Republican candidate for Delaware’s open Senate seat went one direction and Chris Coons, her Democratic opponent, the other. The media swarm had to decide quickly whom to pursue. It was nearly unanimous. The horde rushed en masse after O’Donnell. Only a few followed Coons.

“I looked over my shoulder and there was my opponent taking my leftovers,” O’Donnell told a TV reporter later.

O’Donnell is the campaign here. She is colorful and outspoken and willing to attack her own party for giving her only minimal support after she upset Representative Mike Castle in the Republican primary in September—all traits the press loves in a candidate. Castle, 70, has none of them. Nor does Coons, who’s about as exciting as dry toast. Absent O’Donnell, the media wouldn’t be here.

Castle was the favorite of party leaders in both Delaware and Washington. They figured he’d defeat Coons on November 2 and she’d lose. And they may have been right. Now they’re stuck with O’Donnell, whether they like her or not. It’s an awkward situation, and they’re making it worse. Castle hasn’t endorsed her, and the state party has only grudgingly come to her aid.

In Washington, the folks at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) had a perfectly sensible argument for not airing TV ads boosting her when she was roughly 20 percentage points behind Coons in polls: She was a lost cause. But the day after she debated Coons on CNN last week, a Rasmussen poll found she’d cut Coons’s lead to 51-40 percent. So O’Donnell may not be doomed to lose after all and might benefit from television spots by the NRSC.

But there’s a twist. One of her advisers believes she might benefit even more by running against the NRSC and the Washington political class. She’s already honed the anti-Washington theme. “If you want a U.S. senator who will stand up to the Washington elite  …  then I humbly ask you to vote O’Donnell for U.S. Senate,” she said in her opening statement in the CNN debate.

O’Donnell, it turns out, is an excellent campaigner, knowledgeable on issues and confident in making the case for conservative policies. She and Coons, 47 and balding, debated before the stuffy Wilmington Rotary Club the morning after the nationally televised CNN debate. In both sessions, she was the more assertive.

Coons, the county executive of New Castle County, is a cautious technocrat who acts as if he expects to win so long as he doesn’t make an egregious mistake. He rarely mentions President Obama, whose popularity has dipped in Delaware, and was probably wary of Obama’s campaign appearance for him in the state last week.

In the debates, Coons fashioned a tame anti-Washington message of his own. “Washington is broken,” he said. Not only that, but there’s “partisan gridlock” and “elected officials  …  are putting narrow partisan agendas ahead of the good of the country.” Who knew? He also declared that Washington “isn’t working well enough for us.” No kidding.

Coons calls himself a “Truman Democrat,” but he doesn’t sound like one. He’s no hardliner. On Afghanistan, he doesn’t sound like an Obama Democrat either. It’s a “decade-long war with no end in sight,” he says, and he’s opposed to “rebuilding all Afghanistan.” Instead of deploying a large number of troops there, he favors what he calls “duck hunting” by “a small, agile force with lots of intelligence” that would track down terrorists.

O’Donnell supports the war, but is critical of Obama’s deadline of July 2011 to begin pulling American troops out of Afghanistan. She calls it a “random time withdrawal.” She would put off withdrawal until Afghanistan has “a representative government  …  that serves the needs of the people and that can defend themselves.”

To the extent that credentials matter, Coons (Amherst B.A., law and divinity degrees from Yale) has the advantage. O’Donnell got her B.A. from Fairleigh Dickinson University last summer. She’s ducked questions relating to incorrect statements in a lawsuit she filed against a former employer. And she’s had a string of financial difficulties. “When I fell upon difficult times, I made the sacrifices needed to set things right,” she explained in the CNN debate. “I sold my house. And I sold a lot of my possessions in order to pay off my personal debt.  …  I have worked hard to get in the position that I am.  …  And I’m stronger for it.”

O’Donnell has been something of a perennial candidate. She ran for the Senate in 2006, then in 2008 against Joe Biden. Now she’s running for the seat Biden held for 36 years before becoming vice president.

The CNN debate was the “tipping point,” O’Donnell told me. This was before the new poll showed her gaining on Coons. “We shattered my opponent’s glass jaw,” she says. “You’re going to hear the glass falling on the floor.”

She won’t be lacking for money. Since the primary, she’s raised $4 million, enough to pay for “tougher” TV ads attacking Coons. “I believe he’s gotten a free ride so far.” Indeed he has. As a college senior, he wrote about being “a bearded Marxist.” It was a joke, he says, and the press has accepted his explanation at face value.

O’Donnell’s life has been scrutinized far more aggressively. It was discovered she had dabbled in witchcraft as a teenager, and reporters took this revelation seriously. So did O’Donnell in her first ad. “I’m not a witch,” she said. “I’m you.” The ad was controversial, but it more or less put the issue to rest.

Now we’re about to see “a whole new Christine O’Donnell,” she says. New or not, we’ll see a lot of her. She’s a political star, a celebrity, and the press can’t take its eyes off her.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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