Christine O'Donnell Tries to Leave Past Behind in Debate

Christine O'Donnell CBS

Delaware Senate candidates Republican Christine O'Donnell and Democrat Chris Coons engaged in an often-contentious debate Wednesday night that included charges of Marxism and extremism as well as a number of tense exchanges between the two rivals.

O'Donnell said her controversial past statements, including that she had "dabbled in witchcraft" when she was younger, were not relevant in a campaign that should be focused on the economy.

"This election cycle should not be about comments I made on a comedy show over a decade and a half ago," she said.

But one of those past statements came back to haunt O'Donnell during the debate: Her claim that evolution is a "myth," which she refused to repudiate or reaffirm despite being pressed repeatedly.

O'Donnell told a skeptical Wolf Blitzer, one of the debate's moderators, that she had chosen to open her first ad by saying "I am not a witch"in an effort "to put it to rest, to put it behind me."

Down 19 points to Coons according to a CNN/Time poll released on the day of the debate, O'Donnell went on the offensive, at one point calling Coons a Marxist. She based the claim in part on a reference Coons made to himself when he was a student.

AP
"I would argue there are more people who support my Catholic faith than his Marxist belief," she said, arguing that Coons had acknowledged that he learned his beliefs from a Marxist professor.

Coons responded that his characterization of himself in college as a "bearded Marxist" had been a joke, adding: "I am not now nor have I been anything but a clean-shaven capitalist."

The candidates exhibited markedly different styles over the course of the debate: Coons was mostly sober, ticking off his accomplishments, while O'Donnell, a talk show veteran, was looser. She seemed most comfortable when reacting to her opponent, not reciting prepared remarks.

The two sparred early in the debate on what O'Donnell called a "culture of dependency," which she suggested had been created by Democrats. "What do we want Delawareans to be receiving, food stamps or paychecks?" she asked.

Coons responded that "to simply denounce people as being dependent because they are applying for food stamps ... is plainly slandering people because of difficult times."

O'Donnell largely stayed away from her past positions throughout the debate, though she did say he "faith has matured over the years." When Coons suggested that O'Donnell would be guided by her religious faith if she becomes a senator, O'Donnell said she would be guided by the Constitution.

Asked to name a recent Supreme Court decision she opposed, O'Donnell stumbled but vowed to put an answer on her website.

Coons mostly stressed his own qualifications, though he deemed O'Donnell's positions "extreme" in his opening statement and repeatedly suggested she wasn't telling the truth. When O'Donnell suggested that Coons "created twelve contingency funds so he could pay out favors to special interest groups," Coons responded that she had him mixed up with his predecessor as county commissioner; when she said "Iraq" in response to a question about Afghanistan, he corrected her.

"We are going to have a conversation rather than a diatribe," he said at one point.

There was a lighthearted moment early in the debate after Coons deemed discussions of O'Donnell's personal finances a "distraction." O'Donnell joked that he was just jealous that he had not been portrayed on "Saturday Night Live."

O'Donnell sought to cast Coons as a Democratic footsoldier, stating that he "wants to go to Washington and rubber-stamp the spending bills." She claimed that electing Coons will "instantly" cost Delaware residents $10,000 apiece because of tax hikes and energy policy, and said Democrats' stimulus package has "cost us 2.6 million jobs" despite estimates by independent economists that it has saved or created millions of jobs.

CBS

Some of the most combative back and forth took place over the health care legislation, with O'Donnell claiming the government wanted to put "Uncle Sam in the examination room."

Coons responded that while O'Donnell was good at slogans she was short on specifics, snapping back, "How does this bill actually put Uncle Sam in the examination room?'' (Watch a portion of the health care back and forth above.)

Among the other issues the pair differed on were embryonic stem cell research, the war in Afghanistan, education and immigration. The candidates are seeking the seat formerly held by Vice President Joe Biden.


Brian Montopoli is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.

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