GREENVILLE, Del. — The tea party may be over in this state's volatile U.S. Senate race.
Republican Christine O'Donnell, whose Sept. 14 upset of veteran moderate Rep. Michael Castle in Delaware's Republican primary was considered the tea party's biggest coup yet, is far behind in most polls, raising questions about the movement's clout among more mainstream voters.
Democrat Chris Coons is ahead by double digits in every statewide poll. O'Donnell, said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Poll, "hasn't passed the first hurdle, where voters think she's qualified for the job. And that's a pretty low hurdle."
Even if she cleared that hurdle, she'd still be an underdog, said Jason Mycoff, an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware.
"Delaware is a Democratic-leaning state, a moderate state," he said, "and she's running a pretty conservative campaign."
Of the six other successful tea party-backed Senate candidates this year, three are in too-close-to-call races — Nevada's Sharron Angle, Colorado's Ken Buck and Alaska's Joe Miller. Three have comfortable leads: Utah's Mike Lee, Kentucky's Rand Paul and Florida's Marco Rubio.
O'Donnell's best hope — like the hope of other tea party favorites — depends on what kind of voter has more influence Tuesday: moderate Delaware Republicans such as David Dietz, undecided Republicans such as Victor Mattia or diehard conservatives such as Theresa Garcia.
Dietz, the owner of the suburban Wilmington BBC Tavern and Grill, was a strong Castle supporter. A CNN/Public Opinion Research poll Oct. 8-12 found Coons with a 68 percent to 22 percent advantage among moderates. The margin of error was plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.
Dietz typifies the mood.
"I can't in good conscience even hold my nose and vote for her," he said. "... Her morals and ethics and just not in line with mine."
O'Donnell, 41, has been plagued by a stream of missteps. After admitting that she'd dabbled in witchcraft as a young woman, she released a widely mocked ad that opens with her saying, "I'm not a witch." She asked at a debate last week, "Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?" In another debate, she couldn't come up with a U.S. Supreme Court decision she opposed.
Serious questions also have been raised about her finances. The Internal Revenue Service filed a lien against her in March for unpaid taxes, an action that O'Donnell says was a mistake. And her college alma mater sued her in 1994 for unpaid expenses, a debt satisfied nine years later.
Those controversies grate on Dietz.
"I'd like to see a W-2 form," he said.
At his restaurant, however, not everyone is eagerly embracing Coons. Mattia, a Wilmington beer salesman, voted for Castle, but he's troubled by how Coons, as a 21-year-old Amherst College student, wrote an article for the student newspaper titled "Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist," about his conversion from conservative Republican to Democrat.
"One candidate would put a spell on you, and one would assign your occupation," Mattia said. "My preference is none of the above."
Such people could be prime targets for true O'Donnell believers such as Garcia, a friendly, feisty Dover real estate agent.
"Her college bills? She's explained that. How many doctors or other professionals are having trouble paying off their college loans?" she asked. "She's one of us."
Coons tried to attract supporters last week with events such as a meeting at Wilmington's Domaine Hudson Wine Bar & Eatery, where he found sympathetic business owners.
Afterward, Coons was asked how he could bring undecided voters over to his side. He kept his trademark serious look and offered a two-minute answer about the importance of creating jobs, noting, "That's what's going to move people, not the outside issues."
The contrast with O'Donnell was sharp, as she wowed about 300 people Thursday night stuffed into the firehouse in Millsboro, a blue-collar town in southern Delaware. People surrounded her asking for autographs and photos. "We pray for you," Judy Curry, a Dagsboro retiree, told her.
At the podium, O'Donnell railed against big government and took on her critics.
"I have enough experience to know how Washington works," she said. In the 1990s, she worked for conservative groups and had a two-year stint at the Republican National Committee's communications office.
"I have a feeling I won't be in favor of anything that's coming up in the lame-duck session," she said. Congress plans to return to Washington in mid-November, when it will be still under Democratic control. The Delaware Senate winner could be sworn in immediately to fill Vice President Joe Biden's unexpired term.
The crowd loved O'Donnell's 15-minute pitch, eating slices of a sheet cake decorated like an American flag and wearing T-shirts declaring, "The U.S. Constitution is America's Solution."
An O'Donnell victory would be a stunning upset, the most dramatic evidence yet of the tea party movement's strength. O'Donnell won a closed Republican primary with about 30,000 votes, and it usually takes about 200,000 to win a statewide election — and half of Delaware's 650,000 registered voters are Democrats, while a third are independents.
Murray, the Monmouth pollster, thinks her task is nearly impossible.
"It's one thing to say you're a woman of the people, but she seems to have trouble answering even the most basic questions," he said.
Yet, that glimmer of hope remains.
"You have to wonder if a lot of people tell pollsters they're not voting for her because it's not chic," said State Auditor Tom Wagner, a Republican whom Castle, then governor, first appointed in 1989. "It's just too crazy of an election year to make an absolute prediction."
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