- Associated Press - Sunday, September 12, 2010

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Arms linked, Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell and her conservative backers kick up their heels and clap to the strains of an original song with lyrics befitting a tea party: “Look out, Washington, D.C., ‘cause we are on a roll, and we’re rocking across this country with a message to be told.”

It’s a tune that’s unnerving the Republican establishment in Delaware, which fears being felled by swift kicks from Ms. O’Donnell — and tea partiers.

Not longer after ‘tea party’-backed Joe Miller stunned Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican establishment is furiously trying to avoid a similar outcome in the Delaware primary on Tuesday. Republican leaders, top strategists and even the Delaware state GOP chairman have taken the unusual step of openly working to defeat Ms. O’Donnell and ensure the nomination of their preferred candidate, nine-term Rep. Michael N. Castle.

Republicans, who have an outside chance of capturing the majority in the Senate in November, see Mr. Castle as their best chance of winning the seat long held by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. The moderate Mr. Castle is a former governor and has been the state’s lone congressman since 1993.

But Ms. O’Donnell, who has lost twice in statewide races, won’t be cowed.

“We cannot elect any more liberals to Washington, D.C., especially ones who wear the banner of being a Republican. It is an honor to be a Republican,” she told supporters.

Establishment Republicans have been relentless, calling Ms. O’Donnell unelectable, a fraud and a liar. But in a challenge to the GOP leadership and in a boost to Ms. O’Donnell, Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, just came out with an endorsement, saying Ms. O’Donnell will “stand strong for the principles of freedom.”

This weekend, Delaware Republicans set about knocking on 10,000 doors, making tens of thousands of phone calls and flooding mailboxes with fliers that explain both candidates‘ records. In a primary that could draw just 30,000 voters, party officials are going all out to defend one of their top recruits and discredit Ms. O’Donnell.

“She’s not a viable candidate for any office in the state of Delaware,” said the state party chairman, Tom Ross, who is backing Mr. Castle. “She could not be elected dog catcher.”

State GOP officials have done everything in their power to take down Ms. O’Donnell. For example:

• After a conservative radio host took Ms. O’Donnell to task over incorrect claims she won two counties during her 2008 Senate bid against Mr. Biden — in fact, she won none of the state’s three counties — GOP officials gleefully shared the audio.

• When a New Jersey university last week finally awarded Ms. O’Donnell a degree she had claimed for 21 years, Republicans called it the latest example of her exaggerations.

• Ms. O’Donnell’s financial reports show donors are picking up her rent and utilities at a condo that doubles as a campaign headquarters. Republicans hasten to note Ms. O’Donnell’s dire personal finances, which include threats of liens, foreclosures and an Internal Revenue Service audit. Republicans then questioned Ms. O’Donnell’s ability to handle tax dollars, and wondered about the marketing consultant’s reporting just $5,800 in income during a 15-month period.

• The Delaware Republican Party on Thursday filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing Ms. O’Donnell and the Tea Party Express of violating FEC rules that restrict coordination between candidates and outside political organizations. The complaint, filed for the party by campaign finance lawyer and former FEC Chairman Michael Toner, states that the Tea Party Express solicited donors to contribute to Ms. O’Donnell and that she and the group worked jointly on advertising, breaching agency rules.

“It is a shame the party is doing this,” Ms. O’Donnell said after a rollicking dusk rally across from the Delaware Capitol this past week, “because I believe that we have the right principles to win this election.”

Ms. O’Donnell and her supporters just as eagerly point to Mr. Castle’s votes in support of the 2008 Wall Street bailouts, which were championed by Republican President George W. Bush, and Mr. Castle’s support for climate change legislation that has stalled in Congress. Those votes are immensely unpopular with conservative Republican voters.

“He’s getting harder and harder to support,” said Carl Williams, a retiree from Camden. “Castle should get off the Republican ticket. He says he’s a Republican, but he’s not a conservative.”

Others say Mr. Castle sides too often with Democrats. In a mailing, Ms. O’Donnell calls him “the most liberal Republican in Congress.”

“He’s gone too far left,” said Bob Haller, a retiree who carried a sign saying, “Castle Voted Against God in Our Pledge of Allegiance.”

“He’s become nothing but a rubber stamp,” he said.

So in the nation’s first state, the contest has become a battle between a conservative activist’s fervent supporters versus Republican heavyweights. The race is shaping up to be a measure of the anti-establishment sentiment that views incumbency as a handicap and political inexperience as a valued quality.

The California-based Tea Party Express has pledged $250,000 to help bolster the cash-strapped Ms. O’Donnell. It’s not clear they will reach that goal; so far, officials have disclosed less than $150,000 in federal elections filings.

In campaign reports filed on Aug. 25, Ms. O’Donnell reported raising about $260,000 for her bid and had about $20,000 in the campaign bank account. Mr. Castle had raised $3.2 million and had $2.6 million cash on hand, which is why he has been able to spend freely on mail and television ads criticizing his rival.

The winner of the Republican nomination will face New Castle County Executive Chris Coons. Unlike Republican-leaning Alaska, the Democratic nominee would have a better shot at the seat against Ms. O’Donnell, who lost to Mr. Biden 65 percent to 35 percent in 2008.

Hard feelings among Republican voters could linger well past Nov. 2.

“It angers me. I don’t think no Republican should really go after any Republican,” said Bill Valentine, who’s from Hockessin.

He’s not alone.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose endorsements have proved beneficial to other conservative candidates, announced Thursday that she is backing Ms. O’Donnell, hoping again to thwart insiders’ calculations as she did in Alaska with Mr. Miller.

“She understands the politics of personal destruction,” Ms. O’Donnell said of Mrs. Palin, “and I think that’s why she got involved.”

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