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The Christine O'Donnell fascination, examined



Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donell is a media darling. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

Tonight's Delaware Senate debate between marketing consultant Christine O'Donnell (R) and New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D) will be carried live on CNN and co-moderated by the network's lead anchor Wolf Blitzer.

Judging from that treatment, a casual viewer might conclude that the race for Vice President Joe Biden's old seat is among the most competitive in the country.

That, of course, would be wrong. Way wrong.

In the Real Clear Politics polling average on the Delaware race, Coons hold a lead of 17 points over O'Donnell.

Two other Democratic Senate seats have similar polling numbers.

In Oregon, Sen. Ron Wyden (D) holds an average 16-point lead over someone named Jim Huffman (R).

And, in New York, appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) holds a similar 16-point average lead over former Rep. Joe DioGuardi (R) -- best known for being the father of former "American Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi -- in the race for the seat being vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

A quick Nexis search for "Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons" turned up 658 newspaper stories and wire reports over the past six months. Similar searches turned up 160 stories in the New York Senate race and just 83 in the Oregon contest.

And, it's a certainty that none of the debates in either New York or Oregon will be carried on live television anywhere outside -- maybe -- their home states.

On one level, it's easy to understand the crush of attention being bestowed on O'Donnell.

* She pulled off a historic upset over Rep. Mike Castle in last month's Republican primary and, in so doing, became the most high-profile example of tea party successes in the 2010 election.

* She has said any number of wacky thing -- on tape! -- in the past including that she "dabbled" in witchcraft. (O'Donnell played to that quote with an ad in which she declared "I am not a witch".)

* She is VERY different from other candidates running for the Senate this year and can easily be used to symbolize the "outsider" narrative of this election.

And, O'Donnell isn't the only candidate with little-to-no chance of winning who has drawn voluminous coverage on the cable chat shows, newspapers and blog.

New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino (R), Ohio congressional candidate Rich Iott (R) and South Carolina Democratic Senate nominee Alvin Greene -- remember him? -- have all received press attention well in excess of their chances of winning.

(The Fix is as guilty as anyone else in driving the O'Donnell story. We have written extensively about it -- including a post examining why she almost certainly won't win.)

It's also not unique to this election cycle that long-shot candidates -- hello Ron Paul! -- draw attention that outruns their actual chances.

But, it is important to keep O'Donnell in context. She is a decided long shot to even come close to being competitive in Delaware, and there are at least 15 Senate races that are closer, according to public polling, at the moment.

Covering her is one thing. Covering her as though her race will decide the fate of the Senate is quite another.

By Chris Cillizza  | October 13, 2010; 1:36 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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