WILMINGTON, Del. — Vice president Joseph Biden rallied Democratic Party volunteers in his home state Friday, encouraging them to keep up the fight to keep the Senate seat he held for more than 35 years.
"Take this as serious as you possibly can," Biden said in his pep talk on behalf Senate candidate Chris Coons. "Don't buy any of the stuff you hear nationally, that this is a slam dunk."
Coons, the New Castle County executive, became the Democratic nominee after Biden's eldest son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, decided not to run. Coons is considered the favorite over Republican Christine O'Donnell, a conservative activist who rode a tide of tea party support to a stunning upset over longtime congressman Michael Castle in Tuesday's GOP primary.
Castle, a moderate Republican, was seen as a much more formidable opponent for Coons than O'Donnell, and Democrats celebrated her victory, presuming it will make it easier for them to hang on to the seat.
O'Donnell survived a Republican primary filled with attack ads. She was criticized by GOP officials for lying about her background, leaving a trail of unpaid bills that included an IRS tax lien and a mortgage default, and using campaign contributions for personal expenses.
O'Donnell's supporters suggested that Castle, 71, would die in office if elected and was cheating on his wife with a man.
Without using O'Donnell's name, Biden said Delaware voters appreciate candidates "telling the truth and taking responsibility."
"They are about healing, not dividing. They are about putting things back together, not knocking things down," Biden said.
Coons' political path may be like Biden's.
Biden was a young New Castle County councilman when he shocked Delaware's political establishment in 1972 by defeating incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Caleb Boggs.
Coons served four years as county council president before being elected county executive in 2004. He has been criticized by some residents for presiding over tax increases to balance the local budget, but he defended his record at a candidate forum Thursday night.
Coons said despite cost-cutting measures, county leaders got to the point where further cuts would have meant laying off police officers, closing parks and libraries and "eliminating vital core services."
"My record over six years is cutting $130 million in spending, and sustaining what I believe is an appropriate balance," he said.
Some local residents remain angry.
"Get your hands out of my pocket!" David Clements of Ardencroft shouted at Coons as Biden's motorcade prepared to leave.
"I'm upset that the man raised taxes, that we have less services in the county," said Clements.
Clements also accused Coons of improperly paying the head of a local longshoremen's union $90,000 to be his "eyes and ears" in the black community.
The payments were structured so that they fell just below the threshold for increased scrutiny, but the attorney general's office concluded that no laws were broken.
Despite the criticisms, overwhelming Democratic voter registration numbers give Coons a considerable advantage over O'Donnell. Statewide, there are about 293,000 Democrats compared with about 183,000 Republicans, although there are more than 146,000 voters not registered with either party.
While O'Donnell's struggles in obtaining a college degree because of unpaid education bills were documented by opponents in the GOP primary, Coons has an Ivy League pedigree. He graduated from Amherst College, then earned degrees from Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School.