Campaign funds and broomsticks haunt darling of the Tea Party

They wanted unorthodox, and Republican voters in Delaware surely got it in their newly anointed candidate for the US Senate, Christine O'Donnell.

But the road for O'Donnell since her selection has not been smooth. That their candidate held some fringe views on subjects like masturbation and abortion her supporters would have known. That she had some tricky financial baggage to deal with some might have been aware of. But that she would be associated with cauldrons and broomsticks and would draw a declaration of war from one of the country's top talk show hosts would almost certainly have come as a surprise.

Yesterday, though, Ms O'Donnell appeared to be at the helm of a campaign in deep trouble. As a poll was released showing her fully 15 points behind her Democratic rival, Chris Coons, she was embroiled in efforts to brush off a formal complaint filed on Monday with the state's District Attorney's office that she has misused campaign funds to pay personal expenses, including the rent on her home.

Meanwhile she was struggling to deflect whirling controversy about remarks she made about "dabbling into witchcraft" in the late 1990s on Politically Incorrect, a talk show hosted by the comedian Bill Maher, these days host of Real Time on HBO.

Mr Maher, a political comedian of Jon Stewart's ilk, opened a new season of his show by claiming that he "created" Ms O'Donnell by having her on his old programme no fewer than 22 times more than a decade ago. He then said that if she didn't agree to come on Real Time sometime in the next two weeks he would begin releasing clips of her old appearances, few of which are apparently flattering.

There is no reason to suppose he won't do as he says and release them one by one. "It's like a hostage crisis," he said gleefully. "Every week you don't show up, I'm going to throw a body out."

The flap already caused Ms O'Donnell to pull out of two television appearances that she had been slated to do over the weekend, presumably aware that past associations with witchcraft may not be the best thing for a US Senate candidate.

"One of my first dates was with a witch on an altar and I didn't know it and there was a little blood and stuff right there," she says on the tape. "We went to a movie and then had a little midnight picnic on a satanic altar."

So far Ms O'Donnell has tried to attribute her Wiccan past to youthful foolishness. She is taking the same approach to downplaying her past advocacy against masturbation, a practice she equated to adultery. "I'm in my forties now. I've matured in a lot of my positions," she commented last week. "This campaign is about getting our country back on track."

Harder to shake off are the allegations of financial misdeeds. An interest group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which calls itself a bipartisan watchdog, filed a complaint with the DA's office in Delaware and with the Federal Election Commission charging the candidate with spending campaign money to cover personal expenses.

She was swift to deny the claims, which pertain to money that was for previous, failed attempts to gain elected office in Delaware. "I am positive we have been ethical," she told reporters. "I personally have not misused campaign funds."

"Like any crook she should be prosecuted," Melanie Sloan, the director of the group said. "Ms O'Donnell has spent years embezzling money from her campaign to cover her personal expenses."