- The Washington Times - Monday, January 18, 2010

With a top political handicapper now giving a slight edge to Republican candidate Scott Brown in Tuesday’s special Senate election in Massachusetts, President Obama made a final-hours effort to rally Democratic voters, telling them his agenda hangs in the balance.

Mr. Obama steered clear of health care — the issue that Republicans say has fueled Mr. Brown’s rise — and instead reprised the anti-Wall Street, anti-Bush administration language that carried him to victory in 2008. The president said, based on what he has accomplished so far, that he deserves more time to undo Bush administration policies, and that a vote for Democratic candidate Martha Coakley would buy that time.

“We have had one year to make up for eight. It hasn’t been quick, it hasn’t been easy, but we have begun to deliver on the change you voted for,” said Mr. Obama, who added the trip to his schedule late last week as it became clear that the race had tightened.

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Members of Congress are watching the race closely, though Democrats are reluctant to say that a Republican win would scare other Democrats away from the health care bill. Still, Republicans said that’s what’s at stake.

“I think people have looked at this health care bill and think it’s a terrible proposal, that it’s going to cut Medicare and raise taxes and raise insurance premiums. They want us to stop it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on TV’s “Fox News Sunday.”

Two recent polls showed Mr. Brown, a state senator, having earned a slight lead over Ms. Coakley, the state’s attorney general.

“This race could still go either way, but we put a finger on the scale for Brown,” top political analyst Charlie Cook said in an update released Sunday. “Last-minute Democratic attacks on Brown have driven his negatives up and some slightly diminished the incredible intensity of support that Brown enjoyed, but it looks more likely than not to hold.”

A Republican victory would complicate Mr. Obama’s agenda, beginning with his health care bill, which is being negotiated behind closed doors in Washington. Ms. Coakley supports the legislation, but Mr. Brown has said he would vote against it. His vote would be enough to help Republicans defeat the measure through a filibuster.

In Washington, White House aides and Democratic lawmakers frantically hashed out plans to save the health care bill in the event of a Brown upset. The likeliest scenario would require House Democrats to accept a bill that the Senate passed last month, despite their objections to several provisions. Mr. Obama could sign the bill into law without another Senate vote needed.

House leaders would urge the Senate to make changes later under a complex plan that would require only a simple majority.

“If Coakley loses, I think this is a very viable strategy,” said Ron Pollack, head of the Families USA advocacy group, which supports the legislation.

Mr. McConnell said whoever wins should be sworn in promptly. State officials say it could take more than two weeks to certify the election results, possibly enough time for Democrats to push Mr. Obama’s signature legislation through Congress before Mr. Brown could take office. Sen. Paul G. Kirk Jr., the interim appointee to the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, said he would vote for the bill.

A Republican victory in deep-blue Massachusetts would be historic. Since 1997, all the state’s congressional seats have been held by Democrats, and both Senate seats have been in Democratic hands since 1979. The so-called Kennedy seat, the subject of Tuesday’s election, has been in Democratic hands since John F. Kennedy defeated Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in 1952, and was held by Edward M. Kennedy until his death last summer.

Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the state, but independents make up more than half of the electorate. Polls show independents trending toward Mr. Brown.

“They are the majority of voters here and determine every election,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist based in Boston who said the political environment is “toxic” for those in office. “The question is how many will turn out in a special election. The more that turn out, the better for Brown. And the smaller the turnout, the better for Coakley.”

Bud Jackson, another Democratic strategist, said independents “appear to be more motivated to turn out to vote against health care than to vote for Coakley.”

Mr. Brown, campaigning across the state Sunday, repeatedly put the bull’s-eye on health care to whip up excited crowds.

“I want to be the person to go down there to send health care back to the drawing board,” he shouted at an event in Worcester.

“You’ll be sending a message, a message that will be heard around the nation,” he said to hoots and hollers from the crowd.

Perhaps mindful of the poisonous nature of health care, both the president and Ms. Coakley largely steered clear of the issue in their remarks Sunday, instead focusing on the Wall Street-versus-Main Street arguments that helped Mr. Obama in 2008.

“People are angry at the policies of the past that frankly rewarded the wealthy and left Main Street behind,” Ms. Coakley said.

Mr. Obama repeatedly referred to Mr. Brown as “Martha’s opponent” and criticized his opposition to the president’s proposed tax on banks with large pools of assets, which was announced Thursday.

The president acknowledged that he doesn’t know much about the Republican, but ridiculed him for his campaign ads showing him driving across the state in a pickup truck.

“I’d think long and hard about getting in that truck with Martha’s opponent. It might not take you where you want to go,” he said.

Mr. Obama criticized Mr. Brown for voting with fellow Republicans in the Massachusetts Senate 96 percent of the time.

“It’s hard to suggest he’s going to be significantly independent of the Republican agenda,” the president said.

According to Congressional Quarterly’s party unity scores, Mr. Obama, while in the U.S. Senate in 2007 and 2008, voted with Democrats about that same percentage of the time.

This article is based in part on wire service reports. Joseph Curl reported from Massachusetts.

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