Image: Chris Coons, Christine O'Donnell
Rob Carr  /  AP
Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell answers a question as Democratic candidate Chris Coons listens during a televised Delaware Senate debate at the University of Delaware on Wednesday.
By Senior Correspondent
updated 10/14/2010 9:55:04 AM ET 2010-10-14T13:55:04

Delaware Senate candidates Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons tangled with each other over taxes, Afghanistan, whether he's a Marxist and whether she's a deadbeat in a combative 90-minute debate that also veered into evolution, abortion, religion and gay rights.

Democrat Coons, the New Castle County executive, and Republican O'Donnell, a conservative activist and national celebrity since her Tea Party-powered primary victory over veteran Rep. Mike Castle, started right off trading insults. He said she supports failed economic policies and extreme education positions, and prefers "partisan bickering" over compromise and solutions. She said voters should choose him if they think their government is too small, their taxes are too low and they want a rubber stamp for President Obama's failing economic policies.

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The moderators – CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Delaware public television anchor Nancy Karibjanian – did their part to make sure no sore subject went unmentioned. In the case of O'Donnell, that meant her personal finances and past TV appearances in which she has talked about subjects like masturbation (equivalent to adultery) and witchcraft (she dabbled in it long ago).

Karibjanian noted an IRS tax lien against O'Donnell for about $12,000 in taxes and penalties from 2005, a 2008 mortgage default judgment on her home, and the bachelor's degree the 41-year-old candidate received this year "because it took a decade to pay off the tuition. The question, then, is how can voters rely upon your thoughts on how to manage the deficit if you're having such personal financial issues of your own?"

O'Donnell said the lien was an IRS mistake. As for the rest, "I don't have a trust fund. I didn't come from a privileged, sheltered background as my opponent says he did ... When I fell upon difficult times, I made the sacrifices needed to set things right. I sold my house. And I sold a lot of my possessions in order to pay off my personal debt and to become in a stronger position."

Karibjanian quoted a local writer who said O'Donnell's many comments on videotape, including some from appearances on Bill Maher's show in the late 1990s, "seemed to be making Delawareans cringe." O'Donnell said the election should not be about her long-ago comments on a comedy show. "You know, as, Wolf, you can attest, I have not welcomed this media attention. You've been asking for an interview for quite a long time," she added.

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Coons said he wanted to talk about national issues – not O'Donnell's personal issues, which he said have been all over the national media. "You're just jealous you weren't on 'Saturday Night Live,' she teased him, referring to a skit about her "I am not a witch" TV ad. "I'm dying to see who's going to play me, Christine," he replied with a smile.

It was a rare light moment in a testy session. O'Donnell, trailing Coons by double digits in nine polls since the Sept. 14 primary, tried to bait him as much as possible, including mentioning that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had described Coons as "my pet." "I don't know why Harry Reid said that. I'm nobody's pet. I'm going to be a bulldog for Delaware," Coons said, seeming annoyed.

The other pesky issue for Coons, 47, was an article he wrote in 1985 for his college newspaper, headlined "Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist." He wrote that he had been a "proud founding member of the Amherst College Republicans," but became a Democrat after a visit to Kenya. "My friends now joke that something about Kenya, maybe the strange diet, or the tropical sun, changed my personality; Africa to them seems a catalytic converter that takes in clean-shaven, clear-thinking Americans and sends back bearded Marxists," he wrote in the piece.

Coons, who throughout the debate stressed his work with business groups such as the local chamber of commerce, said the article was clearly a joke. "I am not now, nor have I ever been, anything but a clean-shaven capitalist," he declared.

O'Donnell had turned the talk to Marxism after dodging a question about whether she believes, as she told Maher in 1998, that evolution is a myth. She said her beliefs are irrelevant because it should be up to local schools to decide how to teach evolution and creationism. "I would argue that there are more people who support my Catholic faith than his Marxist beliefs," she added.

Coons believes in "tenets of Marxism" such as raising taxes, O'Donnell said, and wrote in the 1985 article that he learned his beliefs "from an articulate intelligent Marxist professor." She said "that should send chills up the spine of every Delaware voter."

"If it were accurate, if it were true, I'd agree. But it's not accurate. It's not true," Coons said.

Coons did get a chance to talk a little about his record as New Castle County executive, where he said he inherited a deficit, turned it into a surplus and kept the county's triple-A bond rating – one he said only 30 of 3,000 counties have. O'Donnell scoffed that he had balanced the budget by raising taxes and cutting police salaries, and that he had inherited that bond rating. "Ms. O'Donnell is not familiar with how bond ratings work," Coons said, explaining they have to be re-earned on a continual basis.

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It was one of several cutting remarks he directed at her. "Ms. O'Donnell, we're going to try to have a conversation here this evening, rather than just a diatribe if we possibly could," he said, then went on to accuse her of telling "flat-out lies" about him on her Web site.

The pair presented clear contrasts on abortion (Coons said he supports legal abortion, O'Donnell opposes it even in cases of rape or incest); the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gay soldiers (Coons called it "discrimination, plain and simple," while O'Donnell said the policy falls within the military's right to regulate personal behavior such as adultery); and on Afghanistan.

O'Donnell said Obama's plan to start drawing down troops in June 2011 will embolden terrorists. Coons said he would support a negotiated settlement to end the war. "I don't know how long is too long, but 10 years strikes me as awfully long," he said, and "we are not succeeding in building a nation."

O'Donnell also attacked Democratic economic policies, saying food stamps and welfare spending are higher than ever despite promises of recovery and 8 percent unemployment. "This is not a move towards real economic recovery. This is a move towards creating a culture of dependency," she said. To which Coons replied that "to simply denounce people as being dependent because they're applying for and receiving food stamps in the worst recession in modern times is frankly slandering people who are in incredibly difficult times." She called that unfair.

He then went on to fudge whose taxes should remain at lower Bush-era levels ("I don't think we should draw an arbitrary line at $250,000") and she fudged what she would cut to reduce the deficit (Blitzer: "Don't just say waste, fraud and abuse." O'Donnell: Spending freezes and "waste, fraud and abuse.")

O'Donnell also was asked about her 2006 assertion that she was "privy" to information that China had a plan to take over America. "Well, they misquoted me at the time, I believe," she said.

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Video: Senate candidates square off in Delaware

  1. Transcript of: Senate candidates square off in Delaware

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: and we begin tonight in the state of Delaware where there have been two debates in less than 24 hours between the tea party favorite and Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell and her Democratic Party opponent, Chris Coons . They went at each other over everything from taxes to late-night television. NBC 's Kelly O'Donnell following the race tonight from Wilmington . Hey, Kelly , good evening.

    KELLY O'DONNELL reporting: Hi, Brian . Well, the outcome of this race could not be more personal for Joe Biden . Of course, it's his old Senate seat on the line. And tomorrow, the president and vice president will both be here campaigning. It's that important to them. And voters have been seeing a lot of spectacle and now they're getting some substance, too. Today in Wilmington , not your usual Rotary Club meeting.

    Unidentified Man #1: Please move back, sir.

    O'DONNELL: A lunchtime Senate debate drew a packed house and even international media. Republican voters are outnumbered in Delaware , so Christine O'Donnell is fighting to broaden her appeal.

    Ms. CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (Republican, Candidate for United States Senate): What I represent is not just tea parties but Hillary Democrats and those independent voters.

    O'DONNELL: With a big lead in polls, Democrat Chris Coons , a county government executive, wants angry voters to choose his experience.

    Mr. CHRIS COONS: The questions I've asked them is, 'What sort of message are you sending? Simply a protest or do you want to send a senator who will be an independent voice for you.'

    I've heard again and again...

    O'DONNELL: Their first TV debate last night delivered substance on issues with a sting.

    Mr. COONS: Miss O'Donnell has experience at running for office but not at really running anything.

    Ms. O'DONNELL: My opponent has a history of promising not to raise taxes on the campaign trail and then breaking those promises as soon as he takes office.

    O'DONNELL: Coons repeatedly accused O'Donnell of getting her facts wrong.

    Mr. COONS: Some of them are mischaracterizations. Some of them are just factually untrue.

    O'DONNELL: Personal background colors this race. Yale educated, Coons comes from privilege. O'Donnell has had serious financial struggles. Critics question her responsibility.

    Ms. O'DONNELL: I sold my house and I sold a lot of my possessions in order to pay off my personal debt.

    Unidentified Man #2: All right. I got to ask how you're bearing up under...

    O'DONNELL: She claims much of the media attention is unwelcome, but seems to relish pop culture status.

    Mr. COONS: What would you do in Washington ?

    Ms. O'DONNELL: You're just jealous that you weren't on " Saturday Night Live ."

    Mr. COONS: I'm dying to see who's going to play me, Christine .

    O'DONNELL: Clearly behind, O'Donnell claims voters are about to see a tougher side.

    Ms. O'DONNELL: We're going to take a much more aggressive approach on exposing exactly who my opponent is and exactly what his record is.

    O'DONNELL: Talking with voters here, Brian , they say politics has the Delaware way, meaning it's supposed to be nicer, neighborly and about what's happening inside Delaware , not so much around the -- around the country. But this kind of race is testing all of those things. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: I was going to say, big fight for a small state. Kelly O'Donnell , thanks for that, Kelly .


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