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

By Paul Kane and Karl Vick
Monday, January 18, 2010; A01

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.

Bob Largesse, clutching a U.S. flag, said he is an independent and had never been to a political event before. "I want to be represented," he said. "I'm 50 years old. My wife's 52. We work four jobs between us. We're going backwards. The government is spending like a drunken sailor."

Health plan disarray?

The focal point of debate in the contest has been Obama's nearly $900 billion health-care proposal that Kennedy called the "cause of my life." A Brown victory would leave the final stage of health-care talks, which Obama personally oversaw last week at the White House, in disarray as Democrats pondered how to move forward. The bill passed the Senate by the barest of margins, requiring the votes of all 60 members of the Senate Democratic caucus to prevent a GOP filibuster, and negotiators have been operating under the assumption that they would still have 60 votes for final passage.

Brown's opposition to the legislation has Democrats in Congress exploring several potential avenues for securing final passage if the Republican should win Tuesday night, including a rarely used parliamentary device known as reconciliation. Requiring just a bare majority in the Senate, reconciliation rules would require the bill to be somewhat scaled back from its current ambition of expanding insurance coverage to more than 30 million people who do not have it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has indicated that another option -- simply having her chamber approve the version already passed by the Senate -- would be difficult because of opposition by House Democrats to some measures in the Senate bill.

After Kennedy's death in August, state legislators changed the law to allow Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Mass.) to appoint an interim successor, longtime Kennedy friend Paul G. Kirk (D), and then set the date for a rare special election in the middle of winter. Kennedy's brother, the late president John F. Kennedy, won this Senate seat in 1952, handing it off to his college roommate for two years when he went to the White House. Ted Kennedy won the seat in a November 1962 special election.

Coakley's victory was considered a certainty after she won the Democratic primary Dec. 8, but with the race tightening Obama was only the latest of a series of high-profile Democrats to take the stump for her. Former president Bill Clinton campaigned for her on Friday and Kennedy's widow, Vicki, has taken an increasingly high profile in the race.

"The eyes of the country are on us. What we do here is going to be the shot heard round the world," Vicki Kennedy told union leaders Sunday in Quincy

© 2010 The Washington Post Company