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Polls show race for 'Kennedy seat' about even

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; A03

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.

Coakley is aiming to channel the obvious discontent as well.

"I know that voters are angry; they are upset, they are worried about losing their jobs, they are worried about losing their homes, and they're worried about where the economy's going. I am, too," Coakley said at a senior center in Dorchester, her remarks translated into Vietnamese and Portuguese.

"But I think it's wrong for the people who caused the problem in the first place to pretend they're the ones who will clean it up," she said.

The Democrats' attack ads attempt to associate Brown with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Wall Street. But in an effort to mobilize the female vote that was crucial to Coakley's primary victory, there is also frequent mention of abortion rights.

"Give your base a reason to turn out to vote," said Thomas Whalen, a professor at Boston University.

The attacks have been deflected somewhat by Brown's professed support for Roe v. Wade, and by the shrewd deployment of his daughters, Arianna and Ayla, the latter of whom -- as a basketball star and "American Idol" semifinalist -- was far more famous than her father at the start of the campaign.

Another variable is the third- party candidacy of Joseph L. Kennedy, a Libertarian who is no relation to the late senator but who acquitted himself well in the debate. "If this race continues to close, his 3 percent or 2 percent, is going to be huge," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University poll.

The Libertarian would probably draw support from Brown, a natural campaigner who got in touch with voter anger driving around the state in a pickup truck later featured in a TV spot.

"All people want is aboveboard dealings," Brown said in an interview. "They want people to look them in the eye and tell them if it's right or wrong, black or white, yes or no. They don't want the backroom, lack of transparent type of dealings. That's the biggest thing that people are telling me. They might not agree with me on all the issues. But they at least want the ability to have a conversation, and not learn about these Nebraska-type, Louisiana-type deals" that Democratic leaders cut to win votes on the health-care legislation.

Obama released an online video to supporters Thursday urging an all-out effort for Coakley. Brown acknowledged the stakes but sought to play down what the race could represent beyond his state's borders.

"I don't know if there's a national referendum," he said. "I know they're kind of fed up with the way things are going here in Massachusetts, in terms of the one-party rule."

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