- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 17, 2010

BOSTON (AP) — Democrats scrambled over the weekend to stave off defeat in a closer-than-expected Massachusetts Senate race that has raised Republican hopes of dealing a crippling blow to President Barack Obama’s health care reform agenda and other top domestic policy priorities.

Just how much voters have soured since Obama took over a country in chaos a year ago is reflected in the president’s last-minute decision to rush to Massachusetts on Sunday to campaign for the embattled Democratic Senate candidate, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Polls show Coakley and Republican state Sen. Scott Brown are locked in a dead heat heading into Tuesday’s special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, despite the state’s long Democratic tradition and his stature as a party icon.

Just 14 months ago, Obama cruised to victory in Massachusetts by 26 percentage points over Republican presidential candidate John McCain. The state last elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 1972.

But Republican activists nationally became energized after polls showed Brown surging from a double-digit deficit to catch up with Coakley and still gaining momentum. They have poured volunteers and money into the campaign.

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A Suffolk University poll released late Thursday showed Brown with 50 percent of the vote and Coakley with 46 percent, a statistical tie. The survey indicated that Brown’s supporters — a mix of disaffected Democrats, a large number of Republicans and a majority of independents — are far more enthusiastic than Coakley’s backers.

The stakes could not be higher. Losing the race would cost the Democrats their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate. The president has been relying on that big edge to stop Republican delaying maneuvers and pass not only his health care overhaul but also the rest of his legislative agenda heading into November’s midterm elections when control of Congress will be at stake.

Even if Coakley just ekes out a victory, moderate Democrats in Congress may think twice about falling in lockstep behind the White House. The public’s mood also could scare off establishment Democrats considering entering races or cause vulnerable Democratic incumbents to retire.

A day before Obama visits the state, Coakley and Brown used what is suddenly a national stage to test their parties’ 2010 campaign messages. The candidates clashed Saturday over Obama’s proposed bank bailout tax.

Obama proposed the new bank tax Thursday, hoping to tap into voters’ anti-Washington, anti-establishment resentment over the bank bailouts, rising foreclosures and a 10 percent jobless rate nationwide — 8.8 percent in Massachusetts — all being blamed on him now that he’s been in office a year.

The president contends that with banks shelling out big bonuses this month, they can afford the tax. It would be used to close a deficit in the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which many big banks used for bailouts but have since repaid.

“When President Obama says, ‘Let’s get our taxpayer dollar back,’ I’m standing with him, and I’m standing with you,” Coakley told union members about to canvass on her behalf Saturday.

Brown said he was the one with the working class in mind. He said the tax would restrict banks from making loans and that consumers would end up paying higher service and banking terminal fees.

“I’m not in favor of a huge payout” for bank executives, Brown said. “The bottom line is a tax right now on anybody in the midst of a recession is not the way to go.”

The state senator told supporters at a series of bus tour stops that it was one of many taxes Coakley would impose if she were elected.

The Democrats’ challenge was evident during her first appearance Saturday. The Massachusetts attorney general sought to flex the party’s traditional union muscle during a stop at an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall, but several speakers acknowledged many in the rank and file are interested in Brown.

“I have a lot of friends out there that are talking about voting the other way for whatever reason,” state Rep. Marty Walsh, a Boston Democrat, told the crowd. “Look at their records, and then come back and tell me with a straight face that our friends can vote for the other side, because the other side doesn’t care about working-class people.”

Obama planned a quick dash to Boston on Sunday to appear with Coakley in a gymnasium at Northeastern University.

“I think he will provide the focus … for voters in Massachusetts about what’s really at stake here,” she said.

In suburban Quincy, Brown appeared with former Massachusetts Republican Gov. William F. Weld, now a corporate lawyer in New York. Weld endorsed Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, but he said voters are now suffering “spending fatigue and tax fatigue.”

The third candidate in the race, independent Joseph L. Kennedy, has largely limited his campaign to debate appearances. He is unrelated to the famed Kennedy political family.

Coakley crushed three opponents in December’s party primary, gaining nearly 50 percent of the vote and beating her next closest rival by 19 percentage points. Brown has never run statewide and was largely unknown in a state where he and his fellow Republicans represent only 15 percent of the Legislature.

But Brown has surged with aggressive campaigning while Coakley employed a cautious strategy to try to avoid a general election mistake.

Brown, who had never before run statewide, shed his party markings and downplayed his conservative credentials throughout the monthlong campaign — a strategy that propelled Republicans to victory in November’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

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