Polls show race for 'Kennedy seat' about even

Democrat Martha Coakley once had a 30-point lead in the polls -- and campaigned accordingly.
Democrat Martha Coakley once had a 30-point lead in the polls -- and campaigned accordingly. (Gretchen Ertl/associated Press)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

BOSTON -- The seeds of the drama that could see the Senate seat held by the late Edward M. Kennedy slip to Republican control began to sprout during what is traditionally the quietest week on the political calendar.

"Things began to change the week between Christmas and New Year's," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a strategist for insurgent Republican Scott Brown. "That's the week we put our JFK ad up."

The commercial, which aired for only five days, depicted John F. Kennedy, the Democratic congressman who 58 years ago ran an insurgent campaign to capture the Republican-held "Cabot seat," morphing into Brown, the obscure state senator who surveys suggest might do the same with what's become known as the "Kennedy seat" when grumpy Massachusetts voters go to the polls on Tuesday.

But although the audacious spot was ripe for challenge -- the tax breaks JFK trumpeted were the calibrated adjustments of a committed Keynesian, hardly a philosophy embraced by Brown -- not a peep was heard from the campaign of Martha Coakley. Having won the Democratic primary by remaining the aloof front-runner, the state attorney general was not about to engage with a Republican whom the latest poll showed trailing her by 30 points.

"Not a bad strategy, by the way," Fehrnstrom acknowledged. "But when the shift in voter mood and opinion takes place, and you fail to catch it, then it becomes a disaster. And I think that's what happened with her. I think she did not sense the movement in what they should have known was a very volatile electorate."

Coakley knows it now. With polls showing the race a dead heat -- a Suffolk University survey released Thursday night had Brown up by 4 points, at the edge of the margin of error -- national Democratic organizations are scrambling to hold on to the 60th Senate vote crucial to the health-care overhaul being negotiated in Washington and to every other initiative of President Obama. The airwaves of the commonwealth fairly hum with ads attacking the upstart, and Coakley has begun to campaign with the zest of a front-runner knocked from her perch.

"She damn well better get more energetic," said Richard Parker, a longtime Democratic operative who is now a lecturer at Harvard.

The Brown campaign appears to have genuine momentum. The Republican, a former model, performed well Monday in the campaign's only debate. The defining moment came when moderator David Gergen asked whether Brown was prepared, if he won "Teddy Kennedy's seat," to cast the vote that killed the health-care reform bill.

"With all due respect," Brown shot back, "it's not the Kennedys' seat. It's not the Democrats' seat. It's the people's seat."

"Perfect quote," said a man who had driven up from Rhode Island to volunteer on the phone banks at Brown's Needham headquarters Thursday and would give only his first name, Jeff. The lobby was crowded. A dozen arrivals from the Michigan Republican Party milled among locals waiting their turn to dial independents, who make up 51 percent of the state's registered voters.

"The word I hear most is 'disgusted,' " said Fred DeFinis, 58, who has worked the phones for the past two weeks. Seven to eight of every 10 independents tell him that they will vote for Brown, he said, proportions similar to those seen in some public opinion surveys.

"It's very hard for them to say what's on their minds," said DeFinis, a registered Democrat. He reads from a form asking whether they are most concerned about: (1) jobs and the economy; (2) the health-care bill; (3) illegal immigrants; or (4) national security. " 'All of the above' is what we hear the most," he said.

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