NEW YORK // Christine O'Donnell admits she dabbled in witchcraft as a teenager. She has claimed that China is planning to take over the United States. Now she is the Republican candidate for a US Senate seat from Delaware, and one of her campaign television adverts opens with the declaration: "I'm not a witch."
She is part of the anti-big government Tea Party movement that has captured the headlines ahead of November's mid-term elections, but this week Americans finally had a chance to see one of their unorthodox candidates speak out about issues ranging from evolution to witchcraft.
Ms O'Donnell, along with other Tea Party candidates, had refused to give interviews to what she calls the "mainstream" media and used the internet, radio and the right-leaning Fox News channel to garner support. But she was unable to dodge questions during a nationally televised debate with her Democratic opponent late on Wednesday.
She gave a spirited if sometimes faltering performance, attempting to undo the damage caused by much-played television clips from the 1990s when she said she had dabbled in sorcery, did not believe in evolution and objected to homosexuality, abortion and premarital sex.
"We're moving past that; we're talking about the issues," Ms O'Donnell said when asked why she had opened a recent television advert saying: "I'm not a witch."
Ms O'Donnell, 41, was trailing behind Chris Coons, her Democratic opponent, by double digits in some polls taken before Wednesday's debate. She refused to answer whether she believed in evolution and said the authorities had made a mistake when they placed a lien on her property after she failed to pay taxes.
She mistakenly spoke of Iraq in answer to a question about Afghanistan and said of her youthful interest in witchcraft: "My faith has matured over the years." She is now a conservative Christian.
In addition to the topic of witchcraft, the blogosphere has been alight with discussion about her past comments on the Middle East. Some commentators have taken offence when she appeared to attack free speech and back censorship of pornography when she said in an interview with MSNBC in 2004: "I just came back from the Middle East and it was refreshing. With all that's going on, it was refreshing not to be constantly bombarded with smut all the time."
It was unclear where she had travelled but her website said she was once part of a "delegation of journalists to Jordan as a guest of the royal Jordanian government".
"Having witnessed firsthand the oppression in the Middle East, Christine describes this journey as truly a life-changing experience and says it deepened her commitment to the women's movement," the website says.
Other Tea Party candidates have more openly sought to cement support among the almost one-third of Americans who believe it was "definitely" or "probably" true that the US president, Barack Obama, "sympathises with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world", according to a Newsweek poll taken in August.
While Ms O'Donnell has provided the most material for the monologues of late-night talk shows, other Tea Party candidates have also sought to capitalise on widespread anger with the weak economy and high jobless rate. Their targets have included Muslims and Arab Americans, and they have played on the false belief of one in five Americans that Mr Obama is Muslim and not Christian.
It was unclear if the Tea Party might split and dilute votes for the Republican Party, but opinion polls show the opposition might well wrest control from the Democrats in both houses of US Congress - the Senate and the House of Representatives - in elections on November 2. According to a Reuters report, in the House of Representatives, Real Clear Politics poll averages show Republicans leading with 211 seats to 185 for Democrats, with 39 contests considered toss-ups in the battle for a 218-seat majority.
In Senate races, the poll averages show Republicans leading in races that would give them a net gain of seven seats, which would leave Democrats with a 52-48 edge.
In elections to pick political party candidates, known as primaries, the Tea Party fared well. At least seven candidates have won Republican senate primaries with the support of Tea Party activists, including Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican Party candidate for vice president. Some activists have grassroots origins while others are wealthy shadowy backers, including businessmen and conservative foundations.
There were no precise figures on how many Republican candidates for the House of Representatives were endorsed by the Tea Party, but many of them backed its key demand to balance the federal budget each year.
Sharon Angle, a Tea Party candidate in Nevada running for the Senate, claimed last week that Sharia law was taking over in several US cities. Opinion polls taken after she made her remarks showed she was running almost neck-and-neck with Harry Reid, her Democratic opponent and a powerful Senate majority leader.
She singled out Dearborn, Michigan, which has a large Arab community, and Frankford, Texas, which appears to have few Arab or Muslim connections.
"It seems to me there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a foreign system of law to even take hold in any municipality or government situation in our United States," she told a rally in Nevada last week.
Her comments were "bizarre", said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "This seems to be an example of incoherent bigotry," he said.