The line at the University of Delaware’s Trabant Center box office the morning of Monday, Oct. 11 stretched down the hallway to the outside, across the street from the parking garage on East Main Street, as hundreds of students and community members waited to get complimentary tickets to the Christine O'Donnell vs. Chris Coons debate.
Students and other members of the university had waited since before 8 a.m. for the chance to buy a ticket to the high profile debate scheduled to be held at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13. O’Donnell, a Tea Party-backed Republican, will face off with Coons, a Democrat and current New Castle County executive, at UD’s Mitchell Hall on the Green.
Most of the people waiting in line never got the chance. The event sold out in 10 minutes at the Trabant Center, the Bob Carpenter Center and the downstate telephone line, said Meredith Chapman, a UD spokeswoman. The university plans to have a site where people can watch the live, televised debate, she said. Plans will be forthcoming at www.udel.edu.
Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Communication Ralph Begleiter, director of UD’s Center for Political Communication, pulled out his cell phone and photographed the long line and the students lucky enough to land a ticket studying their seat and aisle numbers.
“That was quite stunning, actually,” Begleiter said. “I’m not entirely surprised but if anyone tells me the students at UD are apathetic, I’m just going to whip out my camera and play the video for them. I was delighted to see the interest and I’m very sorry we don’t have enough tickets.”
The excitement at Trabant mirrored the recent political phenomenon in the First State, what Begleiter called “Delaware, the epicenter of politics” at last week’s debate at UD between congressional candidates John Carney, a Democrat, and Glen Urquhart, a Republican also backed by the Tea Party.
Those who got tickets said they were mostly interested in seeing O’Donnell, who has received much national and local press since she rode the Tea Party Express to victory in the Republican primary against longtime U.S. Rep. Mike Castle in September.
Among those who got tickets to the O’Donnell-Coons debate were second-year master’s students Maggie Surface, 26, of Nashville, Tenn., and Cassie Brunette, 24, of Chilton, Wis. The grad students, who are studying energy and environmental policy, got in line at around quarter to eight in the morning.
Page 2 of 4 - “I’m excited to see what Chris Coons has to say but I’m also interested to see how Christine O’Donnell will be challenged when she actually has to talk about the issues,” said Surface, a registered Democrat.”
“I pretty much agree with Maggie,” Brunette said. “I’m interested in how [O’Donnell] handles herself. Everyone has been comparing her to Sarah Palin and all that stuff. And Sarah Palin doesn’t look like a train wreck when she’s in public because she knows how to handle herself. I’m interested to see if Christine O’Donnell has the same kind of quality – if she can present herself in front of other people and make them understand where she’s coming from.”
Both Surface and Brunette are registered Democrats. They both felt that a lot of the national attention O’Donnell has brought to Delaware is due largely to the national support and the out-of-state financial support she has received.
“That’s made this a national race,” Surface said.
UD junior Meghan Dennis, 20, of Wilmington, also got a ticket to the high profile debate. She got in line at 8:30 a.m. because she is really interested in the race and has been following it closely on MSNBC and other medial outlets.
“This is basically historical, what’s going on right now, so I think anybody that can go should go," said Dennis, who is majoring in criminal justice and sociology. “I think our most important right is to vote and to come out and see what the candidates are really about is important."
Dennis is registered to vote as an independent, the same as her parents. She may change her registration to Democrat in the future, which gives the edge to Coons at this point. But she wants to hear what both Coons and O’Donnell have to say before she makes a final decision.
“I have a lot of friends who can vote and they don’t," Dennis said. "If you want to change [things], you have to get out and vote. Even if you are for Christine O’Donnell, go out and vote for her.”
UD freshmen Rob Hagerty, 18, of Hitchens Farm near Newark, and Connor Juers, 19, of Middletown, also waited with mixed results. Hagerty, who arrived at Trabant at 8:30, got the third to the last ticket while Juers, who arrived at 8:45 a.m., missed a ticket by five people.
“I am so bitter because I saw people cutting in line,” said Juers, who is majoring in neuroscience.
“I want to go because I feel like I don’t know enough unbiased information about Christine O’Donnell,” said Hagerty, who is majoring in finance and accounting. “Everything that I do know kind of comes from media, people that are biased like Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show. I just want to see what she has to say for herself.
Page 3 of 4 - “But, on the other hand, I would consider it a very far stretch that I would ever vote for her,” said Hagerty, a registered Democrat. “
Juers, also a Democrat, still plans to watch the debate, which will co moderated by CNN political anchor Wolf Blitzer and will be televised live.
“I am interested because Mike Castle has serving Delaware for such a long time,” Juers said. “He’s been such a stalwart in Delaware that the fact that he’s been overturned makes this a particularly interesting election because it’s so different. Plus, he was overturned by such a polarizing candidate in Christine O’Donnell. I’m just fascinated.
“I don’t know much about Chris Coons,” he added. “But, at this point, I don’t see myself voting for O’Donnell. But I’m interested in learning about both candidates. I’m still going to watch but I wish I could have been there live.”
UD freshman Ryan Bradley, 18, of Newark, who attended last week’s debate between Carney and Urquhart, was not so lucky this time.
“I’m thinking about putting an ad on Craigslist,” he said. “I’ll give somebody 20 bucks right now.”
The attention the Diamond State has received was something no one could have foreseen until the turn of events in September, Begleiter said. The UD Center for Political Communication opened on Jan. 4. It has conducted polls on Delaware’s high profile races.
“The fact that Delaware Republicans chose to throw out their longtime representative Mike Castle and substitute Christine O’Donnell for him means that a lot of people in Delaware are unfamiliar with her so it makes perfect sense to me that people say, ‘OK I’ve got to find out who she is,’” Begleiter said. “The No. 2 reason is that she represents something in this election that’s unusual in an off-year election, a candidate in the primary whose success was attributed to a fairly large amount of money coming into from out of state and from the Tea Party. [And] Sen. Jim DeMint funded an advertisement for her.
“She represents a new development or a new twist in elections like this senate race, in the sense that the primary was not conducted solely in Delaware,” he added. “Finally, Christine O’Donnell’s personality is such that she’s pretty widely known already based on what’ she‘s said and what she’s been saying.”
However, Begleiter did not want to leave Coons out of the picture since he instantly went from underdog against Castle in the polls to a heavy favorite against O’Donnell, with double digit leads in polls conducted by UD and Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“Since Sept. 14, all the experts and the pundits from both the left and right have predicted that Chris Coons will win this race,” Begleiter said. “I think there many people who will be there to listen to Chris as well.”
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