Posted: Oct. 14, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Happening was more interesting than the debate.

It was Harry Reid's pet vs. Sarah Palin's Mama Grizzly. It was the bearded Marxist against the witch.

The University of Delaware in Newark was alive Wednesday for the Senate debate broadcast on CNN between Chris Coons, the earnest Democratic executive of  New Castle County, and Christine O'Donnell, the Republican tea party novelty.

Television correspondents dotted the campus mall for their stand-ups as though it were the White House lawn. There were gaggles of people holding up political signs -- "I'm me, and I'm voting for Chris Coons" and "Chris Coons + Your Vote = Higher Taxes" among them -- while chants for and against the candidates punctured the air.

It was a beautiful evening for a protest. A Bernese Mountain Dog wore a light blue O'Donnell t-shirt. There was the occasional witch hat in evidence. No masturbation, though.

Some 160 members of the media, including 50 foreign journalists, congregated for the event. Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, held a press conference for some of them beforehand and offered a wry perspective.

"It is quite remarkable that the eyes of the world would shift at least for a short time from the incredible happenings [of the mine rescue] in Chile," Markell said.

"Many of us thought Mike Castle would be here, but of course, if he was here, many of you would not be here."

As for the debate itself, well, neither Coons nor O'Donnell was any Joe Biden. They were not even Mike Castle. Or Ted Kaufman.

Delawareans will have some adjusting to do. Their three-member delegation in Washington has not switched in anything less than a departing governor since 1982. Its collective seniority has not been this low since the early 1970s, and the debate scene included a living reminder of it.

The occasion brought together Pete du Pont, the Republican ex-governor, and John Daniello, the Democratic state chair. Forty years ago, they would have been the ones on the stage for a debate in the open congressional race, which du Pont won.

They almost never meet. This debate really was some kind of draw.

The main event, played in Mitchell Hall in front of about 640 people, was kind of humdrum. O'Donnell was not burned at the stake. Coons was not exposed as a Soviet spy.

The only break in decorum was a momentary outburst from the balcony. It was seen close up by Brian Selander, the governor's chief strategy officer, who happened to be nearby as two people shouted "Baba Booey," an old line from the Howard Stern Show. They were directed to leave, and that was that.

The debate was no time to leave spontaneity to chance. The candidates sounded like they came armed with quotable lines of defense.

When Coons pressed O'Donnell about creating distractions from "core issues" like job growth, she parried, "You're just jealous that you weren't on 'Saturday Night Live.'"

Coons deflected references to college banter calling him a bearded Marxist with a deadpan delivery, saying, "I am not now, nor have I ever been, anything but a clean-shaven capitalist."

Who won the debate? Although O'Donnell succeeded simply by not casting a spell, the advantage had to go Coons. He did nothing to endanger his respectable lead in the polls, and his views on social issues connected him with the good old middle-of-the-road voters who dominate the electorate here.

An exchange about embryonic stem cell research showed the difference between them.

Coons favored spending federal funds for it, a position that could appeal to the moderate voters who were set adrift by Castle's defeat in the primary. Castle was "Mr. Stem Cell," an association that cost him with conservatives.

By contrast, O'Donnell declared, "The federal government should not be in the business of creating life simply to destroy it."

After an hour and a half, it was over. The media mob decamped for the next campaign spectacle, the sideshow in Delaware done. Markell in his press conference was asked what the voters were most concerned about, and the governor said jobs, but there was probably something else.

Stop the late-night ridicule. End the embarrassment. The voters will do what they have to do.