Nearly one year to the day after President Barack Obama was sworn into office as an agent of change, Massachusetts Senate candidates battled to the wire Monday in an election that threatened his agenda and reflected voters' frustration with the status quo.
Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown scoured the state for votes on the eve of the special election to succeed the late Edward M. Kennedy, with the Democrats' 60-vote Senate supermajority at stake.
From a distance, the president made one last appeal in a TV ad for Coakley, his words reflecting how much was on the line for Democrats in the face of a surprisingly strong challenge by Republican Scott Brown in a state that hasn't elected a Republican senator since 1972.
"Every vote matters, every voice matters," Obama said in the ad that showed him campaigning with Coakley a day earlier. "We need you on Tuesday."
Obama needs Coakley, the state's attorney general, to win to deny Republicans the ability to block his initiatives — specifically the near-complete health care plan — with a filibuster-sustaining 41st Republican vote. A Coakley loss also would be an embarrassment, particularly because Obama has put so much political capital on the line.
A Suffolk University survey taken Saturday and Sunday shows Brown with double-digit leads in three communities the poll identified as bellwethers: Gardner, Fitchburg and Peabody. But internal statewide polls for both sides show a dead-heat.
Backers of Coakley and Brown worked feverishly to identify their supporters and persuade undecided voters to move their way. Each side deployed armies of volunteers to man phone banks and trudge door to door through ice and snow to encourage people to vote.
A third candidate in the race, Joseph L. Kennedy, a Libertarian running as an independent, said Monday he's been bombarded with e-mails from Brown supporters urging him to drop out and endorse the Republican. But Kennedy, who is polling in the single digits and is no relation to the late senator, said he's staying in.
Special elections tend to draw relatively few voters, but Republicans and Democrats predicted a high turnout Tuesday. The Massachusetts electorate, like the country at large, is dissatisfied with the country's direction, and those disgruntled voters are expected to vote their passions in droves.
Democrats, who until just a week ago considered the race a lock for Coakley, have been forced to scramble for votes in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-1. Brown has thrown Democrats for a loop, riding a wave of voter anger with Obama's health care plan and what critics call big government spending to pull the race even.
The concern among Democrats was clear when they trotted out Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to accuse Brown backers of dirty tricks.
Trying desperately to slow Brown's momentum, Coakley and fellow Democrats rolled out a fresh round of automated calls to voters from Vice President Joe Biden and from Vicki Kennedy, the late senator's widow. They were targeting voters who propelled Obama to victory in 2008. Get-out-the-vote programs were in full swing on campuses across the state, and ads courted the state's large Portuguese and Haitian communities.
Obama's TV appeal mostly was intended to encourage the Democratic base to vote. Democrats need their base to turn out big, given that surveys showed Brown leading among independents and Republicans incredibly energized about his candidacy.
"Martha knows the struggles Massachusetts working families face because she's lived those struggles. She's fought for the people of Massachusetts every single day," Obama says in the spot, filmed during Sunday's rally with Coakley at Northeastern University.
In the final hours, Democrats were making a play for independent women who have not yet rallied around Coakley even as she is running to be the state's first elected woman senator. Her campaign organized a conference call Monday with female Massachusetts mayors who said they support her because she backs Obama's agenda and has been responsive to their concerns.
Brown was trying to capitalize on his advantage among men. He appeared before a heavily male crowd at a Boston Bruins hockey game. A day earlier, he surrounded himself with several well-known male sports celebrities, including former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
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