WASHINGTON — Christine O'Donnell, the Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat in Delaware, "dabbled into witchcraft" when she was younger, allegedly failed to pay her taxes and has endured controversy over her college expenses.
Do voters care? At what point does a candidate cross a line and begin to look unfit for office?
That question is being asked more often this year as lesser-known candidates, often with support of the conservative tea party movement, have introduced themselves to voters. However, this also could be a year when traditionally toxic revelations and statements prove less important than voter anger over how Washington operates.
"There is such a level of anger and distrust of the establishment, both Republicans and Democrats, that candidates who in the past were on the fringe are now accepted," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Reno.
Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said: "Individual peccadilloes matter less this year. Voters are focused on the big picture."
That's hardly new. Before his successful presidential campaign in 1980, a year of economic and foreign-policy turmoil, a gaffe-prone Ronald Reagan not only promoted a conservative brand of politics that had had little success at the presidential level, but also won that election handily, at least in part because of the same sort of voter anger, Herzik said.
Reagan, though, had governed California for eight years, and so was better-known than O'Donnell and others are.
Other well-known politicians have overcome bouts of quirkiness. Joe Biden, whose former seat O'Donnell is seeking, in January 2007 called Barack Obama "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
Nineteen months later, Obama chose Biden as his vice presidential running mate.
A more apt analogy, analysts said, could be businessman Ross Perot. He wasn't well-known to the electorate when he became a serious third-party candidate for president in 1992. However, he dropped out of the race in July, saying that President George H.W. Bush's campaign was trying to upset his daughter's wedding, a charge that a Bush spokesman called "nonsense.".
Perot re-entered the race in the fall, and though he wound up with the biggest vote that any third-party candidate had received in 80 years, he'd been defined in the public eye, and finished a distant third in the popular vote.
This year, Republican Party officials publicly say that they're not concerned about Democrats demonizing them.
"In this election environment, I would take any Republican candidate on our side, versus a liberal Democrat who supported the failed stimulus, supported the health care spending bill and has made clear that if elected they will maintain the status quo of reckless spending in Washington," said Brian Walsh, a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman.
Democrats, though, are rejoicing, seeing a trend where tea party-backed conservatives are jeopardizing Republicans' chances for victory in November.
They point to Nevada, where Sharron Angle, a former assemblywoman, was an upset winner of the Republican primary. She came under fire for several statements, including terming the Gulf of Mexico oil-spill victim compensation fund a "slush fund." She quickly said she shouldn't have used the term, and added that she supported the fund.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, her Democratic opponent, nonetheless is trying to paint Angle as unqualified; at one point a headline on his website called her "the nutty Sharron Angle."
His campaign could be having an effect; polls find the two in a virtual tie.
"Angle has been exposed, and it's hurt her campaign," Herzik said.
In Delaware, Democrats are pouncing on O'Donnell's resume and statements.
In the "witchcraft" video, from a 1999 Bill Maher television program, she explained: "I dabbled into witchcraft. I never joined a coven. I hung around people who were doing these things."
O'Donnell dismissed the remarks in a campaign appearance Sunday, asking a crowd whether they, too, once hung out with "questionable folks in high school?"
O'Donnell's campaign didn't respond to a request for comment, and after the tape was released late last week she canceled appearances on two Sunday talk shows.
O'Donnell, who upset establishment favorite Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., last week for the party's Senate nomination, has other controversies. The Internal Revenue Service placed a lien against her earlier this year for unpaid taxes.
She maintains that the agency later admitted it had erred. An IRS spokesman said he couldn't discuss individual tax matters. Newspaper reports also said O'Donnell had contested her alma mater over payment of college expenses.
Voters are still trying to learn about O'Donnell, and analysts said the revelations, and her responses, would have an impact.
"She has to convince people she's a credible candidate," Madonna said.
Other candidates this year have overcome controversies, at least so far. Kentucky Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul had said that sections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act should apply only to public institutions, but in May he said he supported the entire law. He's now ahead in many polls.
The ultimate question is are voters so eager for change that they'll overlook usually toxic revelations? Maybe, said Tobe Berkovitz, a communication expert at Boston University.
"I wouldn't want O'Donnell or Angle doing my brain surgery," he said, "but running for office is a different matter. It's all about how they respond."
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