WASHINGTON — The tea party's latest darling, Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, aligned herself squarely with the Republican Party's social conservative base Friday in criticizing Democrats and "ruling class elites" in her first national appearance since her upset primary victory.
"They're trying to marginalize us and put us in a box," O'Donnell said to cheers. "They're trying to say we're trying to take over this party or that campaign. They don't get it. We're not trying to take over our country. We are our country. We have always been in charge."
It wasn't clear whether she was talking about the tea party or the conservative movement or both. But it didn't seem to matter to the friendly crowd at the annual Values Voters Summit just days after she shocked the GOP with her upset of nine-term Rep. Mike Castle.
Since then, O'Donnell has seemed to focus on trying to repair a reputation battered during the primary's final days. She scheduled interviews on two Sunday morning news programs and made a last-minute appearance at Friday's gathering, which serves as a testing ground for presidential candidates and up-and-coming Republicans.
After taking the stage to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," O'Donnell recalled when President Barack Obama took over the White House in 2009.
"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," O'Donnell told her audience – and then added coyly: "Well, how things have changed."
She repeatedly struck a populist, outsider tone, dismissing the "D.C. cocktail crowd," chiding the "Beltway popular crowd" and blistering "the ruling class elites."
"They call us wacky. They call us wing nuts. We call us 'We the people,'" O'Donnell said, invoking conservative stalwart Newt Gingrich's saying: "There are more of us than there are of them."
She made scant – if any – references to the Republican Party or the tea party coalition.
And only in passing did she acknowledge divisions within the conservative movement, saying there is not always agreement on strategy, endorsements and campaigns but "we're loud, we're rowdy, we're passionate."
O'Donnell trails Democrat Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive, in a state where Democratic voters far outnumber Republicans. Republicans and Democrats alike say it will be difficult for a conservative like O'Donnell to win the seat Vice President Joe Biden had held for decades.
Nevertheless, in the days since O'Donnell's victory, establishment Republicans, some grudgingly, were starting to embrace O'Donnell as their GOP nominee, mindful not to alienate tea party activists who shepherded her to victory and who are injecting a huge dose of energy into the Republican Party ahead of the Nov. 2 elections.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the head of the National Senatorial Campaign Committee, was planning to meet with O'Donnell. She was doing her part, too, to bridge the divide between the tea party and GOP establishment by appearing at the meeting.
Sponsored by the conservative Family Research Council, it served as friendly audience for the candidate, who started her political career years ago as a conservative activist and cable TV commentator focused on opposition to cultural issues such as abortion, homosexuality and premarital sex.
Since her GOP nomination victory, opponents have unearthed unflattering age-old TV clips, including one in 1996 in which she equated masturbation with adultery. She said then: "The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery, so you can't masturbate without lust."
On Thursday, O'Donnell dismissed her previous comments and stressed that the Constitution – not her personal beliefs – will guide her votes on legislation.