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Tea party star's unusual TV ad stirs up buzz

October 5, 2010

Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell is out with a new ad that follows one of the oddest campaign story lines of this election season. The tea party Republican, dressed in a black blazer and pearls, looks directly into the camera and really levels with voters: "I'm not a witch," she says.

O'Donnell, who scored a major upset over Delaware Rep. Mike Castle in the state's GOP primary, said in a past appearance on "Politically Incorrect" that she had "dabbled into witchcraft."

In her commercial this week, O'Donnell tells voters she's like them. "I'm nothing you've heard," O'Donnell says. "I'm you. None of us are perfect."

The commercial has already achieved one chief aim of political ads in the crowded mediasphere: It's generating a great deal of buzz. It debuted Monday night, and quickly stormed the blogosphere. By Tuesday morning, the spot had migrated into the political-media mainstream, supplying fodder for morning cable discussions and political cheat-sheet alerts. Even the U.K. Guardian  has featured coverage of the ad.

Pundits and political reporters likened the O'Donnell ad's opening statement to President Richard Nixon's Watergate-era pronouncement, "I am not a crook." Commentators are still divided over whether the spot is a rhetorical misfire -- or a canny means of defusing the negative image of O'Donnell as a crank candidate with a history of loose-cannon declarations on a wide range of cultural and political issues.

There are certainly plenty of statements out there that her Democratic opponent, Christopher Coons, can cite to make the case that O'Donnell, a marketing consultant, isn't ready for Washington. O'Donnell told Fox host Bill O'Reilly that scientists created mice that possess human brains and asked on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect," "Why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans?"

But those televised remarks aren't the main strategic challenge facing O'Donnell, most political observers agree. Rather, O'Donnell has to overcome the perception that her ideological beliefs make her too extreme for the moderate and Democratic-leaning state. Early polling in the race showed Coons 15 points ahead of O'Donnell; a Rasmussen poll suggested that a possible write-in run by Castle could cut into the Coons advantage, but that he still led O'Donnell in that scenario by nine points.

O'Donnell, who was raised a Roman Catholic and later gravitated toward evangelical activism, denounces masturbation, does not believe in evolution, and has suggested women should not serve in the military. She also stated in a 2006 newspaper interview that homosexuals suffer from a mental illness and that funding for AIDS treatment is too high.

In other words, while O'Donnell is leading strongly with the "I'm not a witch" message, the "I'm you" part of her message may still be a tough sell to Delaware voters.

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