His health-care agenda at risk, Obama stumps in Massachusetts

President Obama hugs Martha Coakley, the Democratic state attorney general running for U.S. Senate against Republican state Sen. Scott Brown.
President Obama hugs Martha Coakley, the Democratic state attorney general running for U.S. Senate against Republican state Sen. Scott Brown. (Michael Dwyer/associated Press)
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By Paul Kane and Karl Vick
Monday, January 18, 2010

BOSTON -- President Obama made a last-ditch effort Sunday to resurrect the candidacy of a struggling Democrat who could provide him a critical Senate vote, returning to the city that launched him onto the national stage in 2004, this time to preserve his ambitious agenda.

Obama urged Massachusetts voters to send state Attorney General Martha Coakley to the U.S. Senate to succeed the late Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in a surprisingly close race that has taken on national implications both legislatively and politically. An upset victory on Tuesday by state Sen. Scott Brown (R), who was an afterthought a month ago in this Democratic-dominated state, would give Senate Republicans 41 votes, enough potentially to scuttle the sweeping health-care legislation that is the president's top domestic agenda priority. Republicans also think that claiming Kennedy's old seat, under his family's control since 1953, would be a political jolt that could herald big gains in November's midterm elections.

In the past week, millions of dollars have poured into the campaign coffers of the candidates and party committees, money that helped blanket the airwaves with mostly negative ads targeting the two candidates' credentials. Each party has sent top strategists to the state to swing every last vote to its side, and groups from outside Massachusetts have sent hundreds of volunteers across the border.

Brown momentum grows

The candidates spent the weekend crisscrossing the state, appearing at everything from small gatherings of a few dozen voters in towns such as Quincy and Holyoke, to large events with more than 1,000 supporters in Boston and Worcester. Obama's presence, after his aides said last week he had no plans of coming here, underscored the stakes in the race to replace Kennedy, who became Obama's political mentor with his endorsement two years ago this month.

"Understand what's at stake here, Massachusetts. It's whether we're going forward or going backwards," Obama told Coakley supporters on the campus of Northeastern University in Boston. "If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election."

Obama, whose 2004 address to the Democratic convention here set him on an arc to winning the presidency, said his entire domestic agenda -- from financial regulatory reform to climate change legislation -- would be at risk with a Brown win.

"A lot of these measures are going to rest on one vote in the United States Senate," he said. The roughly 30-minute speech was heavy on partisan rhetoric, without much appeal to the independent voters who account for nearly half the state's electorate.

Brown's momentum has been fueled by his success in tapping voter anger about double-digit unemployment and massive federal spending. Public and private polling showed the race very close, according to both camps. Charlie Cook, a respected independent political handicapper, rated the race a tossup, but said Sunday he would put "a finger on the scale for Brown."

Democratic strategists privately suggested that liberal activists who were slow to engage in the race were now mobilized, stemming what had been growing momentum for the upstart Republican. Aides said Coakley supporters contacted nearly 600,000 Democrats on Saturday, part of an orchestrated effort focused on bringing out the party's most loyal backers in what is likely to be a low-turnout election because of its irregular timing.

Brown capped off a whirlwind tour of towns and cities outside Boston with a 1,500-person rally in Worcester, remaining upbeat and exuding confidence heading into the final days of the campaign. "I don't need an establishment to prop me up," said Brown, who has aimed his campaign at the independents who make up the majority of Massachusetts voters. "I stand before you as a proud candidate of Democrats, Republicans and Independents across Massachusetts."

In recent weeks, Brown's campaign has transformed some of the most seasoned GOP operatives in this highly Democratic state into optimists. Ron Kaufman, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts who was political director in the White House under President George H.W. Bush, stood in the chill outside the Kenmore Diner in Worcester, the candidate's third morning stop, and marveled at the turnaround as passing motorists honked in support.

"People drive by, used to give us this," he said, holding up his middle finger. "Now they give us this," Kaufman said as he showed a thumbs up.

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