His agenda potentially imperiled by the outcome of a close U.S. Senate race, President Barack Obama focused his attention and prestige Sunday on Massachusetts Democrat Martha Coakley, whose bid to succeed the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has gone from shoo-in to nail-biter.
Obama was making a last-ditch attempt to save a Democratic-held Senate seat in Massachusetts — and an important 60th vote for his healthcare plan — as the top Senate Republican called the shockingly close race a verdict against the bill no matter who wins.
"This is, in effect, a referendum on the national healthcare bill," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "It is perfectly clear if it's unpopular in Massachusetts, it's unpopular everywhere. The American people don't want us to pass this bill."
The legislation has dominated the tighter-than-expected race between Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown. She supports the bill. He doesn't and has said he would vote against it, robbing Democrats of the 60-vote majority Obama has been relying on to pass much of his agenda and thwart Republican filibusters.
With so much on the line, Obama was heading to Boston to campaign with Coakley at Northeastern University in the midst of final negotiations over the sweeping healthcare plan and the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. His visit underscored the perilous situation facing Democrats in Massachusetts.
Despite the state's long Democratic tradition, Coakley and Brown are in a dead heat heading into Tuesday's special election to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy. Coakley, the state's attorney general, had led Brown, a state senator, by double-digits in polls after the early December primaries.
But the race narrowed considerably over the past week as Brown's populist message resonated with an angry and resentful electorate in an antiestablishment environment. He's energized Republicans as well as attracted disillusioned Democrats and independents worried about taxes, spending, government expansion and health care under Obama. In a race this tight, turnout will be the key.
With the personal visit, Obama is seeking to fire up rank-and-file Democrats who outnumber Republicans in this state but who are dispirited just one year after he took office. Turnout is notoriously low in special elections, and Democrats need their loyalists — particularly blue-collar and minority voters who might not be motivated — to show up at the polls.
Judging by Obama's track record in elections since taking office, however, the strength of his political muscle is in question. He campaigned hard for New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and in Virginia for Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee to replace Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine. But both Democrats lost, and Republicans regained power in both states.
Ahead of Obama's visit, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino told a largely black congregation that a Coakley loss will be a victory for people who want Obama to fail.
"A lot of people don't want Barack Obama to succeed, and that's who we're fighting against. They don't want him to be a president that leads this country. They want him to be a president who fails," said Menino as he appeared with Coakley at a morning prayer service in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood for victims of the Haiti earthquake.
Coakley denied that Obama's visit indicated her candidacy was in trouble.
"I don't think he has to come, I think he wanted to come. He was excited to come," Coakley told reporters Saturday. "Who wouldn't want the president of the United States campaigning for her in a historic race?" She said it was "pretty cool."
Brown didn't seem concerned about Obama's visit, saying Saturday: "I hope he has a safe trip and enjoys himself and has a good trip looking around a great state." He planned to campaign in Worcester, a blue-collar city in central Massachusetts, when Obama was in the state.
In the closing hours of the campaign, Democrats pressed to make the case that Brown is not who he claims to be. They cast him as a far-right conservative funded by "tea party" supporters and they highlighted a TV interview from 2008 in which Brown seems to suggests that Obama may have been born out of wedlock.
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