O'Donnell, Coons face off in contentious debate
Published: Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Updated: Friday, October 15, 2010 22:10
Nervous audience laughter interrupted a series of cutting jabs between the candidates during Wednesday night's nationally televised debate. The "Delaware Way" of civil political discourse has vanished from this year's U.S. Senate race.
Within the first few minutes, Democratic candidate Chris Coons scolded his opponent, Republican Christine O'Donnell, for lingering in her response to a question about job creation.
"Ms. O'Donnell, we're going to try to have a conversation this evening, rather than just a diatribe if we possibly could," Coons said.
Moderators Nancy Karibjanian of Delaware First Media and CNN's Wolf Blitzer probed both candidates in the second installment of Delaware Debates 2010, held at Mitchell Hall and broadcast live on CNN.
Despite the tremendous national media attention paid to O'Donnell's candidacy, the debate was one of few media appearances O'Donnell has made since upsetting Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) in the primary last month.
"You know, as, Wolf, you can attest, I have not welcomed this media attention," O'Donnell said. "You've been asking for an interview for quite a long time."
During a discussion about health care reform, Blitzer asked the candidates to assess the progress of the Affordable Care Act.
O'Donnell said the health care legislation passed in March gives the federal government a disproportionately large roll in medical decisions.
"Uncle Sam has no business in the examination room," she said.
Coons delivered a sharp rebuttal, criticizing his opponent's propensity to speak in soundbites.
"Christine, give some concrete example of how—that's a great slogan," he said. "You toss it around everywhere you go. How does this bill actually put Uncle Sam in the examination room between doctors and patients?"
Karibjanian asked O'Donnell to respond to attacks on her sullied personal financial history, including a mortgage default in 2008 and failure to pay her college tuition for a decade after graduation.
O'Donnell said her financial troubles distinguish her from her opponent, a graduate of Yale University who comes from an affluent Wilmington family.
"I paid for my own college education," she said. "I also have a graduate fellowship in constitutional government from the Claremont Institute. I know how hard it is to earn and keep a dollar."
One of the more uncomfortable moments of the evening came when Karibjanian asked O'Donnell to discuss a recent Supreme Court case to which she most objects.
"Oh, gosh," O'Donnell said. "Give me a specific one, I'm sorry."
Karibjanian said she was unable to oblige the Republican candidate's request.
"Actually, I can't, because I need you to tell me which ones you object to," Karibjanian said.
O'Donnell said she disagrees with several recent Supreme Court rulings, and promised to post a list of them on her campaign website.
Coons cited the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling as one he opposes, returning to an earlier discussion of the role of transparency in campaign contributions from corporations.
"In Delaware, America's corporate capital, you would think we would be fighting for the rights of corporations," he said. "But in terms of political contributions, the free speech rights of corporations, I don't think deserve the same protections as the free speech rights of real living, breathing, voting humans."
O'Donnell wavered in her response to an earlier question from Blitzer, who asked if the American people have a right to know where campaigns receive funding.
"Yes and no," she said. "I believe that there are ways to do that where we can report to the FEC. But we don't have to make them public unless there is a question of corruption."
In the final 30 minutes of the debate, the candidates answered pre-recorded questions from university students.
One student asked whether the candidates would vote to repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
Coons described the current policy, which prohibits open homosexuality in the military, as highly discriminatory.
"In my view, we should be making progress in this country towards recognizing the full range of human experience, and repealing ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' to me is an important next step in the civil rights movement," he said.
O'Donnell said the decision to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" should be left to military officials, likening the current policy to other military regulations on sexual behavior.
"The military already regulates personal behavior in that it does not allow affairs to go on within your chain of command," she said. "It doesn't allow, if you're married, to have an adulterous affair within the military."
Another student asked the candidates to define their stances on abortion rights, specifically in cases of rape and incest.
"I respect the human dignity on all levels, the unrepeatable precious human dignity on all levels," O'Donnell said. "And my opponent and others will use the scare tactic about rape and incest when that is less than one percent of all abortions."
Coons said he strongly supports a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion.
"I personally am opposed to abortion," he said. "But I don't think it is my place to put that view on women. I think abortion should be safe, legal and rare."
Following the debate, political science professor Jason Mycoff would not declare a winner, but said Coons did a better job on substance issues than did O'Donnell.
"The question about the Supreme Court case showed some of her inexperience and inability to answer some of those types of questions," Mycoff said.
O'Donnell spokesman Dave Yonkman said one case O'Donnell disagrees with is Kelo v. City of New London, the 2005 case that expanded the government's eminent domain power. He brushed aside criticism of O'Donnell's response.