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Democrats scramble in Massachusetts to retain Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat

By Karl Vick and Chris Cillizza
Saturday, January 16, 2010; A01

BOSTON -- Shaken by polls showing Republican Scott Brown surging in the Senate race that could decide the fate of President Obama's agenda, Democrats on Friday scrambled to shore up the battered candidacy of Martha Coakley, the state attorney general whose once-commanding lead appeared to vanish in the space of two weeks.

The White House announced that Obama will campaign here Sunday. Former president Bill Clinton broke away from promoting Haitian relief to rally the Democratic faithful, which polls show has taken a victory by Coakley as much for granted as analysts say her campaign clearly did.

Both candidates announced plans to barnstorm the three days before Tuesday's special election. Brown will mount a bus tour; Coakley will place her hopes on a recast stump speech unveiled at the rallies with Clinton.

Striving to redefine the race with a message of compassionate populism evocative of Edward M. Kennedy, whose death created the vacancy, Coakley emotionally told of the struggles of a young mother seeking health care, an ice cream parlor owner unable to expand his store, and a construction worker who needs work to afford the medicine to keep his wife's breast cancer in remission.

"That is wrong," Coakley said after each story. "And that's why I'm going to go to Washington and fight for Stephanie . . . Vince . . . Jim and his family."

The fundamental dynamic of the race fell in place months ago, when Brown set off in a pickup truck for the only campaign the Republican could afford: retail, door-to-door. The campaign was so strapped for cash that aides described the $40,000 spent in the primary as a major hit. Brown could not afford to mail out absentee ballots, often so crucial in a close race. "So our program consists of e-mail and Facebook and Twitter," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a campaign official.

By working kitchens, bars and sidewalks, however, Brown was positioned to capitalize on the rising tide of discontent at the grass-roots level over taxes, unemployment and Washington. The frustration is especially evident among independents, who account for fully half of Massachusetts voters by registration. And after repeatedly winning election to the state Senate from a district Obama won with 60 percent, Brown had experience framing a message with broad appeal. "This is a big tent, folks," he said Friday. "One thing I know you all have in common is you believe in fairness and good government."

In mid-December, the National Republican Senatorial Committee conducted a poll that showed Brown trailing by only 13 points, but it kept the results to itself. Coakley continued operating on the assumption that for all intents and purposes she had won the seat with the Dec. 8 primary, a common assumption in the state known as the bluest of the blue.

"I think we overestimated the state's Democraticness and underestimated the national mood," one senior Democratic strategist said Friday. "We thought that the state's deep blue voting pattern would help us withstand national trends."

Coakley was rarely in position to detect the growing anger Brown would channel. Her strategy called for cultivating the local Democratic leaders who could be relied on to turn out enough of the faithful to win a special election, traditionally a low-turnout affair.

"I didn't think relying on the governor and the mayor and this whole trickle-down voting was going to work," said Sandy Fleishman, 69, a campaign volunteer at the Clinton rally. "I'm part of the old-fashioned politics. To a lot of people who don't follow the issues, you shake their hand, you've got their vote."

Coakley's closing strategy is to forge that connection from the stump. Her more personal remarks Friday appeared to energize the crowd, primed by Clinton, in the ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel. "You have to decide whether you want to be a tomorrow country or a yesterday country," the former president said.

But as Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down" came up, what crowded the stage was the state Democratic establishment that analysts say much of the commonwealth is fed up with.

Brown, a Republican senator in a statehouse that is 85 percent Democrat, has gained running room arguing that Massachusetts has suffered under one-party dominance, which he asks for a chance to help change in Washington. His election would deprive Democrats of the 60th vote needed to end debate in the Senate, jeopardizing the passage of health-care reform.

"Right now, it's broken here in Beacon Hill," Brown said Friday at a campaign event beside former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, summoned to commend Brown's anti-terrorism credentials and to slam Coakley. "There's one-party rule that's contributing to three speakers being indicted, three senators resigned in disgrace. One's in jail right now."

"In Washington, there's no debate," Brown continued. "Everything's being done in the back rooms. The health-care bill, we've lost faith, and we need to send it back to start over."

A Democratic strategist in Washington said the election rides on Coakley's effort to define the debate. "It is about the message: Can Brown really be an effective ambassador for you to Washington?" the strategist said. "The answer is no, but we aren't there yet. If they make it about that message, we will win. If they make it about Democratic big-wigs, we will lose."

Ads from both campaigns saturate the airwaves, and the national parties have directed scores of volunteers to staff phone banks and get out the vote. Brown's campaign raised $1 million a day in the past five days.

There was no shortage of dismay on the ballroom floor. "I'm from the Cape. There's Scott Brown signs everywhere," said Pam Alden of Sagamore. "What I don't know is if there's enough time. There's $3 million being poured in. Are we already tired? Will we listen?"

It will all come down to turnout, Democrats say. As in the primary, Coakley remains the one candidate with experience running a statewide campaign, and the visits by Clinton and Obama are intended to light it up. But Obama's appearances in New Jersey did not salvage Gov. Jon S. Corzine's reelection bid. Although the president remains personally popular in Massachusetts, residents are less approving of his job performance.

"If a bit of this is backlash on health reform, for him to come may remind people of that," said Michal Regunberg, a public relations consultant at the Clinton rally. "The notion of losing this is beyond fathoming," Regunberg said. "We're going to lose Ted Kennedy's seat?"

Cillizza reported from Washington. Staff writer Paul Kane in Washington contributed to this report.

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