WILMINGTON, Del. — GOP Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell derided her primary opponent as an Obama Republican on Tuesday as tea party activists rallied to defend her from harsh criticism by the GOP establishment.
About 60 people gathered at a Wilmington hotel for a tea party gathering where O'Donnell made a surprise appearance and accused U.S. Rep. Michael Castle of mudslinging.
"My opponent is an Obama Republican who can't defend his liberal voting record, so he's resorting to mudslinging," O'Donnell said. "It's a shame that an incumbent congressman has to stoop that low."
O'Donnell has become a target of withering criticism from the state GOP establishment, which sees Castle as its best chance of winning the seat vacated when Democrat Joe Biden became vice president. The primary is Sept. 14.
The GOP, stunned by what happened in Alaska when tea party candidate Joe Miller upset Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary there, is taking no chances in Delaware.
Among other things, state Republican officials have called O'Donnell a liar who has trouble paying her bills, misuses campaign funds, and had made false statements about her education and the support she received in previous Senate campaigns.
State GOP chairman Tom Ross has dismissed O'Donnell as a perennial candidate unworthy of being elected dog catcher, and even some fellow conservatives have turned on her.
During a testy interview on a conservative talk radio station in Delaware last week, O'Donnell questioned whether the host, who had endorsed her previous campaigns but now questions her veracity, was being paid off by Castle.
"What's so exciting and energizing about all this is that you're not being duped," O'Donnell told her supporters Tuesday.
"Since he's started his mudslinging, our poll numbers have gone up and our online contributions have increased," added O'Donnell, who did not provide any specifics and refused to speak to reporters after the event.
O'Donnell instead thanked tea party activists from other states for coming to Delaware "to give us the reinforcements that we need."
Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, said the group has committed $250,000 to support O'Donnell's campaign and is paying for television and radio ads on her behalf.
"The time has come for us to put down the protest signs and pick up the campaign signs and get engaged," Kremer said. "We have stood on the sidelines for long enough protesting."
Castle, a former two-term governor and the longest serving congressman in Delaware history, has refused to debate O'Donnell.
"Voters in Delaware have come to expect O'Donnell's misrepresentations of the congressman's record, the personal attacks on his family, and wild accusations," Castle campaign manager Mike Quaranta said in a statement. "Castle is one of the most accessible legislators in the state and is engaged with voters every day. Christine has trouble with the truth and we aren't giving her a forum to further spread lies about Mike Castle."
Tea partiers suggested that Castle is part of a political aristocracy whose members believe they are entitled to hold office and refuse to listen to citizens they are elected to represent.
"This is the republic of Delaware, not an aristocracy," said Tiffiny Ruegner, director of field operations for the Tea Party Express. "... We have a fellow commoner here in Delaware, and her name is Christine O'Donnell."
The primary winner will face Democrat Chris Coons in November. Democrat Ted Kaufman, who was appointed to replace Biden temporarily, is leaving the seat. Biden's son, state Attorney General Beau Biden, was once thought to be a likely Democratic contender, but he decided not to run.