WILMINGTON, Delaware. — Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell has a simple message in her campaign ads — "I'm you."
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With three weeks to the election, many Delaware voters have their doubts about the candidate who admitted in an old TV clip that she dabbled in witchcraft before becoming a Christian conservative.
While O'Donnell's quirky past has made her famous, she remains something of an enigma at home — a talented public speaker and occasional television pundit with a thin resume and a long list of unanswered questions. Her ability to overcome the doubts could determine whether Republicans can take back the Senate in the Nov. 2 congressional elections.
"I just don't know anything about her," said Sallie Wilson, a 71-year-old Wilmington retiree and registered Republican who wants to vote with her party but is having a hard time supporting O'Donnell. "I can't believe that half the stuff they say about her is true because if it was she'd probably be in jail ... but I just don't know what she's all about."
O'Donnell, a New Jersey native who moved to Delaware in 2003, stunned the state last month by defeating congressman and former governor Mike Castle in the Republican primary. She previously had run two shoestring campaigns for Senate that went nowhere. Few paid her much attention this time until the conservative tea party movement embraced her and she won an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Her win, despite unusually strong opposition from the Republican Party establishment, set up a clear test of tea party strength in a general election. Castle, a moderate, was heavily favored to beat Democrat Chris Coons, the New Castle county executive, in November and put Republicans one seat closer to the majority. O'Donnell is an underdog, struggling to gain appeal beyond her conservative base.
Unclear how O'Donnell supports herself
In a small, Democratic-leaning state, O'Donnell, 41, is known mostly for the conservative social positions and religious views she espoused as a television commentator, objecting to homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex and even masturbation. She used the broadcast experience to win mostly part-time work over the years as a public relations consultant or spokeswoman for a handful of small, loosely organized advocacy groups. She has briefly held a few full-time jobs since college.
But that's the extent of her resume, and that's where the questions begin.
She hasn't provided such basic information as how she makes a living and pays her rent. In Senate financial disclosures filed in July, she reported earning just $5,800 in 2009 and 2010, and said she had no bank accounts, retirement accounts or other savings.
She hasn't explained why she spent years of energy and resources running for Senate while leaving behind a trail of debt, including a home foreclosure proceeding, lawsuits over unpaid college expenses, a federal tax lien and staffer complaints of unpaid wages.
She also hasn't explained how it was legal for her to use campaign donations to help pay the rent on her town house. She has said she did so because her house was doubling as a campaign headquarters, but federal regulations clearly state that candidates can't use campaign money for their mortgage or rent "even if part of the residence is being used by the campaign."
On issues, O'Donnell's views are often just as murky, with little more than one-liners on her website.
She won't answer whether she believes in evolution, which she has called a myth, or in climate change. She says the United States has a socialist economy with far too much government spending but is short on details about where she would cut.
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She won't explain past comments suggesting that she would support invading Iran, or that she has classified information indicating that China is plotting to take over the United States.
Her campaign has not responded to repeated inquiries from The Associated Press, and O'Donnell has tightly controlled her public appearances.
In her first ads, which aired this week, she acknowledges some of her difficulties and seeks to define herself as someone who would take her life experiences, financial problems and all, to Washington.
"None of us are perfect," she says, "but none of us can be happy with what we see all around us."
She also tries to clear the air about past comments that have drawn national attention and earned her a parody on Saturday Night Live.
"I'm not a witch," she says smiling, referencing remarks in past TV appearances about teenage dabbling in witchcraft. "I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you."
'She seems to be very naive'
Recent polls, however, show O'Donnell has a long way to go to convince voters. Thanks to Delaware's late primary, she doesn't have much time.
A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released this week found her trailing Coons, by 17 percentage points — with about two-thirds of independents and one-third of Republicans opposing her.
Among those is Ken Melvin, 67, from Wilmington, who described himself as a conservative tea party supporter who would have backed Castle but is now planning to vote for Coons. He said he's attracted to O'Donnell emotionally and likes her youthful energy. But he wants to see more substance.
"What I've seen is she seems to be very naive," he said. "I think she's learning fast ... but it's like Sarah Palin: I just get the impression that she's a wannabe that just can't quite make it."
Republican strategists say O'Donnell must win over such "Castle voters" to have any chance.
At least one longtime Republican consultant said people shouldn't count her out.
"Her campaign is breaking all the traditional rules," said Washington strategist John Feehery, noting that she just set up a formal campaign office last week. "We'll see. She didn't need a campaign office to beat Mike Castle."
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