FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — One of the most famous losers in recent U.S. politics is back on the campaign trail in Massachusetts.
It is not going as well as she had hoped.
“Let me tell you something: It’s a close race. And it is going to be very close” on Election Day, Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee for governor, told a crowd of about 80. For the second time in five years, Coakley was pleading for support — trying desperately to beat a Republican in a state dominated by Democrats.
“I need your help,” Coakley said.
At that, for the first time during her stump speech, they cheered.
Four years ago, Coakley achieved unwanted national fame for managing to lose the seemingly unlosable race to replace a late Democratic icon, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. That campaign was a short, intense clinic in bungling: Coakley took a vacation in mid-campaign. She blasphemed a Red Sox icon who had supported her opponent, calling him a “Yankees fan.” And she didn’t attack Republican challenger Scott Brown until he had surged in the polls, helped by voter unhappiness with President Obama’s health-care bill.
Today, Coakley — still the Massachusetts attorney general — has a chance to redeem her reputation by becoming the state’s first elected female governor.
In this campaign, supporters say, Coakley has applied the lessons of that earlier disaster.
She is shaking more hands, calling herself the outsider and aggressively attacking her Republican opponent as a coldhearted number-cruncher.
Nevertheless, the race is still effectively tied, with two weeks left.
Again, Coakley has been held back by a subdued campaign persona and a thin political agenda. And again by a perception that her party takes this seat — and this state — for granted.
That perception is not exactly helped by events such as this rally, held on the town-hall steps in a western suburb of Boston.
Before Coakley could give her stump speech here, casting herself as a reformist outsider ready to take on those in power, she had to wait on . . . those in power. She was preceded at the podium by six other elected Democrats with 91 years in state office among them.
The local congresswoman first introduced the secretary of state. Who introduced a state senator. Who introduced a state representative. Who introduced another state representative. Who introduced another state senator. Who introduced the congresswoman again. Who, at last, introduced Coakley.
“A top-notch manager,” said Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts. “I don’t put anybody’s management skills over Martha Coakley’s.”
The intent of all this, of course, was to show the depth of Democratic support behind Coakley, and to fire up each town’s mini-machine to turn out the vote.
One effect, however, was also to underline a criticism from Coakley’s opponent: As governor, she might be too cozy with the Democratic-controlled legislature.
“A lot of people like the idea of balance,” said her opponent, Charlie Baker, 57, a former health-care executive and a cabinet official under two Republican governors in Massachusetts. “They like the constructive friction that comes from having a Republican in the governor’s office and Democrats in the State House.”
Coakley, 61, raised in an old mill town in western Massachusetts, was part of the first class at Williams College to accept women. She served as district attorney in a county in the Boston suburbs and became the state’s first female attorney general in 2006.
She was little-known outside Massachusetts until she was known as a disaster, after the botched race to replace Kennedy.
But after that, aides and supporters said they were impressed by the way Coakley got back to work — and got back to politics. She won another term as attorney general later in 2010, was active in opposing the federal Defense of Marriage Act and helped state residents fight off foreclosures.
“Two days after she lost, she went to the governor’s State of the State [address], while I was sitting at home with the pillows over my head,” said Kevin Conroy, who ran Coakley’s campaign against Brown. Behind the scenes, Conroy said, Coakley was reassuring other Democrats that she could win a marquee race: “This is not going to happen again.”
This is her chance. Supporters say that several factors make this race easier than the one against Brown: It is only a state-level contest, which means it hasn’t brought in the same flood of outside interest and volunteers.
“The nation had nothing else to do,” said Anne Manning, 56, a Coakley volunteer from Ashland, Mass. She also blamed herself for complacency: “A lot of us took it for granted. We assumed she would win because we had such confidence in her.” This time, Manning said, she’s spending every evening making phone calls for Coakley.
Coakley has another advantage: Her opponent is another of the state’s political losers, although a less famous one. In 2010, Baker ran against Gov. Deval Patrick (D), with hopes to replicate Brown’s anti-incumbent magic. “Had enough?” his campaign asked.
They hadn’t. Baker lost by six points.
This time, Baker has adopted a more upbeat tone and more moderate political positions. But Coakley has attacked him early and often as a tool of insiders and Wall Street, remembering her mistake against Brown.
“My opponent sees numbers on the ledger. He wants to balance the budget,” she said. (Only in Massachusetts can “He wants to balance the budget” be offered as an insult.)
But, this year, Coakley has seen her double-digit lead in polls collapse to nothing. Again. The latest survey released by the Boston Globe and research firm Social Sphere found the contest tied at 41 percent, with 8 percent supporting other candidates and 10 percent undecided.
One factor might be Coakley’s struggle to sketch out an ambitious agenda in a state where, for eight years under Patrick, Democrats have had the power to make their ambitions come true.
In an interview, Coakley listed priorities that included the completion of a commuter-rail route, repair of bridges and roads, and expanded early-childhood education. But often, her rhetoric turns to vague populist promises such as fighting Wall Street and championing people while the economy makes a comeback.
“I’ve also learned that it’s very important to talk to people, and listen to people, and hear them and see them,” Coakley said in an interview when asked what she learned from the loss to Brown. “To remind people who I speak for. That I stand up for people. I’ve championed people. When we get our vote out,” Coakley added, “we’ll be successful.”