In the most anticipated speech at today's Values Voter Summit in Washington, Delaware's new GOP Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell ignited the Omni Shoreham ballroom with a tangible buzz. She strode onto the stage to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," with orange spotlights sweeping the room. (None of the other afternoon speakers got a light show.) The packed crowd gave her an enthusiastic standing ovation, continuing to applaud long after she took the podium.
She wore a black suit and pearls and seemed nervous at first, ticking off the perilous resume of Obama's Washington: health care reform, the stimulus, bailouts, terrorist trials in Manhattan. "The conservative movement was told to curl up in a fetal position and just stay there for the next eight years, thank you very much," she said, then pausing as a big grin spread across her face. "Well, how things have changed." The audience broke into applause, and from that point forward, O'Donnell seemed to relax. Her speech featured quotable bits about American patriots throughout history and overstepping liberals, and even featured a few self-deprecating cracks.
"The small elite don't get us," O'Donnell said. "They call us wacky. They call us wingnuts. We call us 'we the people.'" Addressing the GOP infighting her nomination has come to symbolize, she admitted, "We don't always agree. ... We don't always endorse the same candidates or speak off the same talking points. We're loud, we're ratty" -- when the crowd laughed, she corrected the word to "rowdy," fumbling a bit. "We're that too," she said. "We're passionate."
Further proving her penchant for fantasy epic fanhood, she told a story from C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When one of the children asks whether Aslan, the lion who symbolizes Christ, is safe, another answers, "'Course he's not safe! But he's good."
"That's what's happening in America today with this grassroots groundswelll," O'Donnell said, "with this love affair with liberty. It isn't tame, but boy, it sure is good."
O'Donnell settled into a bit of a folksy rhythm not too dissimilar from Sarah Palin's speaking style, acknowledging the left's criticisms and giving as good as she got:
Will they atttack us? Yes. Will they smear our backgrounds and destroy our records? Undoubtedly. They will. There's nothing safe about it. But is it worth it? ... I say yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is no moment for the faint of heart. Some have accused us of being just an aging crowd of Reagan staffers and home-schoolers. They're trying to marginalize us and put is in a box. ... They don't get it. We're not trying to take back our country. We ARE our country.
She also took Palin's cue with an oblique reference to death panels and a string of family metaphors to describe the relationship between government and the people. "They'll buy your teenage daughter an abortion, but they won't let her buy a sugary soda in the school's vending machine," O'Donnell quipped to a chuckling crowd. "And what kind of mom or dad sticks the bill to a kid who'll have to pay it tomorrow?"
Acknowledging criticism about her unpaid (until recently) college debts and various other financial struggles, O'Donnell admitted to her share of economic challenges. "I never had the high-paying job or the company car," she said. "It took me 10 years to pay off my student loans. I never had to worry about where to dock my yacht to reduce my taxes." (This last John Kerry jab did not go unappreciated by the audience.)
When her speech wound to a close, the crowd leapt to its feet again. The moderator who took the stage after O'Donnell asked the audience to pray for her, saying, "This woman of faith is going to be under severe attack."
Yet as the journalists who might have been likely to launch an attack or two gathered by the exit to pounce on her, it became clear that she might not yet be ready to defend herself. She did not appear (at least during the 15 or 20 minutes I waited by the door).
It's critical to understand that though O'Donnell seems to have nailed this speech, she was preaching to the choir. It will be far more interesting to see how she does during press conferences, TV interviews, and moderated debates (like last night's conversation between her and Democratic candidate Chris Coons, which didn't reveal much about either candidate). Will she run from the press, Sharron Angle-style, or embrace the publicity and spin it to her advantage, Sarah Palin-style? Given that O'Donnell has made a good portion of her (admittedly spotty) income through press appearances and seems to have already absorbed chunks of the Palin persona, the latter path seems more likely.