For media fascination, Delaware Senate race with O'Donnell easily trumps Pa. race with Sestak & Toomey

Sharron Angle at a rally Monday in Carson City, Nev.
Sharron Angle at a rally Monday in Carson City, Nev.
Posted: October 15, 2010

MAYBE IT'S because the GOP candidate Pat Toomey never called for "Second Amendment remedies" to big government or tried to make a political issue out of masturbation.

Or perhaps it's because the Democrat, Rep. Joe Sestak, never argued that unemployment benefits aren't in the Constitution or blurted out on a TV comedy show about youthful dabbling in witchcraft.

But whatever the reason, the national media have looked at Pennsylvania's high-profile, big-money race for the U.S. Senate and decided for the most part to send their star reporters elsewhere - especially next door to the "Small Wonder" of Delaware.

On Wednesday night, the Beltway media headed up I-95 en masse - and stopped about 23 miles south of the Pennsylvania border, in the college town of Newark, Del.

It was there that Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell - whose past remarks about witchcraft and sex, and whose Sarah Palin-esque persona, have launched her as a one-woman political reality show - was debating her Democratic rival, Chris Coons.

Not only were more than 50 foreign reporters reportedly among the swarm of nearly 200 journalists who descended on the University of Delaware campus, but the debate also was broadcast nationally on CNN - a powerful symbol of national obsession that will not be repeated when Sestak and Toomey meet here.

The irony is that in a midyear election of intense voter anger and greater interest than usual - thanks to high unemployment and sweeping anxiety about the U.S. economy - the media frenzy is focusing on a race that may be highly entertaining but may not be that competitive.

Most recent polls show O'Donnell - after riding tea-party support to upset moderate Rep. Mike Castle in a GOP primary last month - trailing Coons by double digits and as many as 17 percentage points.

Is it simply that a ratings-driven media wants to focus on a candidate like O'Donnell - who's entertaining now but may be irrelevant on Nov. 3 - as well as her tea-party allies, like Nevada's Sharron Angle and Kentucky's Rand Paul, all of whom have a penchant for pot-stirring remarks?

Or is the national press not paying much mind to Pennsylvania's Sestak and Toomey because they're . . . a little b-o-r-i-n-g?

According to experts, it's some of both these things.

"We've got our two cerebral candidates," said G. Terry Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall College political scientist and pollster, referring to Sestak, the Delaware County congressman and retired admiral, and Toomey, a Harvard-educated ex-banker and former House member himself.

Madonna said that on the stump, both Sestak and Toomey are policy wonks who "can be about as engaging as watching a professor give a lecture." On the afternoon of the much-hyped Delaware debate, for example, Toomey was giving a speech on the government-sponsored housing entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

But isn't that what candidates for the U.S. Senate are supposed to be talking about, and shouldn't the news media be covering that instead of devoting the top of the hour to O'Donnell's date with a classmate at a satanic altar when she was a high-schooler in Moorestown?

"In terms of the state races, you can't blame the national media for focusing on the ones with the most entertainment value," said Dan Kennedy, the longtime media critic and assistant journalism professor at Northeastern University. Still, he said he wishes reporters could lavish the same attention on the impact of President Obama's $800 million stimulus program, for example.

For what it's worth, neither the Sestak nor Toomey campaigns seems jealous of the attention showered on the other Senate races. "We get tons of calls every day," shrugged Toomey's communications director, Nachama Soloveichik. Her Sestak counterpart, April Mellody, seemed to welcome a focus on Delaware's O'Donnell, arguing that it shows how Toomey is "closely aligned" with the tea party.

But while Toomey has run with support from the tea party, the former congressman from Allentown also has a knack for avoiding out-there remarks like Angle's "Second Amendment remedies" comment or Paul's statement, which he pulled back, that he would have opposed part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Which may partly explain why all the TV trucks are parked in places like Delaware this year.

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