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Hot Questions: Is Christine O'Donnell Hurting the GOP in Pennsylvania?

This post also appears on Slate.

Each week until the election, I'm posting some of the questions I'm trying to answer based on news of the week or something that's come up in my reporting. In the following weeks, I'll try to answer some of these questions. Feel free to weigh in with answers--or with more political questions--at or in the comments section below. Here are this week's questions:

Delaware U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell speaks during a debate between O'Donnell and her opponent Chris Coons at Widener Law School in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, October 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Robert Craig, Pool) AP

Will Christine O'Donnell cost Republicans two Senate seats? Ever since she won Delaware's Republican nomination for senator in September, the conventional wisdom has been that Christine O'Donnell turned a sure win for Republicans (if Rep. Mike Castle were the nominee) into a sure win for Democrats. In this case, the conventional wisdom is not wrong. But now I've been hearing a pitch from several Democrats involved in the Pennsylvania and Delaware races that O'Donnell could affect the Senate race in Pennsylvania, too. She's so toxic, they say, and so visible in the Philadelphia media market, that she's convincing voters Republicans are too extreme. It's a contributing factor in the tightening that appears to be happening in both the Senate and gubernatorial races.

This theory has a lot of potential adherents. Democrats hope to sell it in order to keep pushing the "Republicans are extreme" message. Establishment Republicans irritated with O'Donnell--and Sarah Palin--want to argue that the reckless campaign might cost them more than simply the seat in Delaware. And TV producers and Web site editors like this theory because it is about Christine O'Donnell. Though she's 20 points behind in Delaware, and there are a dozen more interesting Senate races, she's good for ratings and readership. But this theory is also like those watches they sell on the street corner: shiny and thin. No one has any proof at all.

How soon will the 2012 campaign start? Marc Ambinder reports that Sharron Angle's campaign is pitching this ad as the first one of the 2012 presidential campaign. It uses President Obama's words against him and ties the president to Harry Reid. As proof of the double-edged problem of an Obama visit, an image in the ad of the two men hugging (often a liability in campaigns) also appears on fliers the Reid campaign has used to turn out its vote.

Reid has many problems of his own making, but one of the big ones is that for months he's been the subject of attack ads from outside groups. Will that happen to Obama in 2011? Will conservative groups with anonymous donors spend money to continue pummeling the president even after Nov. 2 and into 2011, when he can't really respond as a candidate? In 1995 Bill Clinton started putting together ads in the early summer to define his Republican opponents. Will Obama have to start putting his ads together even earlier?

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Are Democrats alive in Ohio? Democrats in this bellwether state may have the best get-out-the-vote effort in the country--and there are signs that it is performing well. Usually participation falls off in non-presidential years, but according to Ohio Democrats, in Cuyahoga County, a Democratic stronghold, more than 210,000 ballots have been requested to date, compared with 224,640 ballots requested in 2008. Statewide, Democrats account for 40 percent of the ballot requests. Republicans have asked for just 30 percent. Democrats appear to be mailing them in. According to numbers first reported in Politico, out of nearly 400,000 votes cast statewide through Thursday, 44 percent were from registered Democrats, 34 percent from Republicans.

More Democratic ballots means more Democratic votes. But what we don't know is how the 30 percent of unaffiliated voters who asked for early ballots will vote. We also don't know whether the Republican turnout will be greater on Election Day itself.

In the Senate race in Ohio, Democrats don't look like they have much of a chance. Their candidate, Lee Fisher, is behind by almost 20 points in the polls. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland is in a tight race, though. Turnout will be key. These numbers also matter to President Obama. The organization doing all of this work grew out of the one he created for the 2008 campaign. Ohio will be crucial to his 2012 chances. That's why, even after traveling there last week, the president will make yet another Ohio stop before the election.

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John Dickerson is a CBS News political analyst. He is also Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. You can also follow him on Twitter here.
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