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Christine O'Donnell: From 'witchcraft' to Tea Party favorite

By Ed Hornick, CNN
Republican Christine O'Donnell has found herself playing defense for much of her Delaware Senate campaign.
Republican Christine O'Donnell has found herself playing defense for much of her Delaware Senate campaign.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • GOP's Christine O'Donnell is taking on Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware's Senate race
  • O'Donnell is trailing Coons by double digits, polls show
  • Her campaign has been marked by controversial comments she has made over the years
  • Some Democrats caution her campaign should not be taken lightly

Washington (CNN) -- In the days leading up to what looked like an upset win in Delaware's Republican Senate primary, Christine O'Donnell found out the perils of being in the national political spotlight.

"I've put my name on the line," O'Donnell said at a recent candidates forum in Delaware. "And I've taken a lot of hits ... a lot of character assassination."

The Tea Party-backed candidate has been repeatedly mocked by pundits for not only her lack of experience but for her past.

In a 1999 interview on comedian Bill Maher's TV show "Politically Incorrect," she stated she used to "dabble into witchcraft."

The comments forced the 41-year-old to go into defensive mode, addressing that issue rather than focus on her opponent, Democrat Chris Coons, executive of New Castle County.

Her first major TV ad focused not on issues or her opponent but on that 1999 statement, in which she declares, "I am not a witch. I'm not anything you've heard. ... I'm you."

NBC's "Saturday Night Live" jumped at the chance to mock O'Donnell.

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"Hi, I am Christine O'Donnell, and I am not a witch. I am nothing like you've heard," SNL's Kristen Wiig, playing O'Donnell, said in the mock ad. "I am you, and just like you, I have to constantly deny that I am not a witch."

The Coons campaign also took a shot at the ad by putting an image of her from the ad on his website with the message "Tell Christine O'Donnell: You are not me."

O'Donnell takes all the witch comments in stride, telling CNN in a rare interview with a national news outlet that she is isn't necessarily embarrassed.

"And I'm not saying that I'm proud. You know, obviously what they're trying to do is paint a picture of who I was 20 years ago. I've matured in my faith. I've matured in my policies. Today you have a 40-something woman running for office. Not a 20-year-old. So that's a big difference."

Read more of CNN's interview with O'Donnell

O'Donnell, who beat moderate Republican Mike Castle in the September primary, also took the opportunity in the interview to highlight her outsider message.

"We won the primary. We challenged the political system as we know it. We busted up the backroom deals, and we made a lot of people afraid."

But she still faces several controversies that have forced her campaign off message:

-- O'Donnell's former campaign manager has accused her of paying rent with campaign donations, an allegation she argues has "no truth to it."

-- She's dealt with the Internal Revenue Service on issues relating to unpaid income taxes.

-- She's been attacked by Democrats and even Republicans, including Karl Rove, on her qualifications to serve as a senator, among other things.

She also made a stir with her stance on sexuality. A Catholic, she once headed the pro-abstinence group Saviors Alliance for Lifting the Truth. In an interview that aired on MTV in the 1990s, she said that the "Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery. [And] you can't masturbate without lust."

O'Donnell is no stranger to the world of politics and its downfalls.

She has run for the Senate three times in five years. She finished third in the 2006 GOP primary before running uncontested in 2008 against then-Sen. Joe Biden. She lost by 30 percentage points.

O'Donnell again this year finds herself in a tough position, at least according to the polls.

Coons holds a 19-point lead over O'Donnell, according to a Monmouth University Poll released October 12. Among likely voters, 57 percent said they will vote for Coons; only 38 percent said they support O'Donnell.

And when it comes to who is qualified, 64 percent said Coons is qualified to be a senator while only 35 percent said O'Donnell is, the poll found.

The poll, which surveyed 790 likely voters from October 8 to 11, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Read more on the poll

"What looked like a probable Senate pick-up for Republicans has quickly slipped from their grasp. In fact, with Mike Castle off the ballot for the first time in years, Delaware may provide one of the only opportunities for Democrats to flip a House seat this year," Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said.

Other polling shows a similar narrative.

Despite all her perceived pitfalls, at least one prominent Delaware Democrat has warned she shouldn't be underestimated.

State Attorney General Beau Biden said in late September that O'Donnell "should be taken seriously."

"Chris [Coons] is taking her seriously. My party is taking her seriously," Biden told CNN's John King in an interview.

"It's not about what you see on the national television shows," Biden said, seemingly referring to some of those comments. "It's about where they [Coons and O'Donnell] stand on the issues."

And for her part, O'Donnell realizes something former House Speaker Tip O'Neill once said: "All politics is local."

"I'm concerned about what's important to the people of Delaware," she told CNN. "I want to go to Washington and do what average Delawareans would do."

CNN's Jim Acosta, Dana Bash, Bonney Kapp, Alexander Mooney, Gabriella Schwarz, Alan Silverleib and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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