Voters in Massachusetts decide on a new senator Tuesday -- and possibly the fate of President Barack Obama's ambitious reform agenda.
The special election to fill the seat of the late Democratic veteran Edward Kennedy could see Republican Scott Brown score a stunning upset against Democrat Martha Coakley in what was believed to be one of her party's safest seats.
The latest Public Policy Polling survey conducted over the weekend gives Brown 51 percent to Coakley's 46 percent. One published by left-leaning website The Daily Kos showed them equal, but with Coakley sharply down from a week ago, when she led by eight points.
The stakes are huge, not so much for who will represent the northeastern state, but because a win by Brown would demolish the fragile supermajority Democrats use in the Senate to override opposition to health care reform and the rest of Obama's agenda.
With 60 Senate votes, Democrats are able to prevent Republican filibusters and push through legislation. With only 59, Democrats would need Republican support, which in today's increasingly rancorous partisan divide looks unlikely to happen.
The president showed his alarm Sunday when he took time off from the Haiti earthquake crisis and other pressing issues to campaign in Boston.
He told a noisy crowd of Coakley supporters that the big initiatives of his presidency -- the health care plan, clean energy initiatives, and attempts to repair the damage from last year's financial meltdown -- are on the line.
"A lot of these measures are going to rest on one vote in the United States Senate," Obama said. "That's why the opponents of change and progress have been pouring money in."
Obama faces this perilous situation exactly a year after his January 20 inauguration and his lofty promise to bring in a new climate of political cooperation.
Republicans, who took a drubbing during the 2008 presidential and general election, now believe they are poised for a comeback, while Democrats are scared.
Most damaging of all to the Democrats would be collapse of their bogged-down health care reform plan. The bill is said by the party to be almost ready for passing, but if that 60th Senate vote is not there, Obama's landmark initiative could die.
Democrats are racing to draw up contingency plans for a rapid passing of health care in the event of losing the Massachusetts seat, but that would likely provoke a firestorm of Republican complaints.
"Republicans could start a legal battle over the legitimacy," Politico website reported.
Equally alarming for Obama is the potential for this special election to herald defeat in the nationwide mid-term congressional elections in November.
Especially troubling for Democrats is Brown's popularity with independents, a crucial factor in many elections across the country.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one in Massachusetts, but there are even more independents and Public Policy Polling found that Brown leads 64 to 32 percent in that sector.
Also, he is getting 20 percent of the vote from people who backed Obama in last November's presidential election, while Coakley is getting only four percent of one-time John McCain supporters.
Republican strategist Bradley Blakeman wrote on Politico that if Brown wins, then Republicans will see the race as "barometer of the storm that is coming this fall for Democrats throughout the country."
Democrats, wrote Blakeman, "will batten down the hatches and hunker down. Incumbent Democrats will run for the hills, away" from Obama and their congressional leaders.
The analytical Rothenberg Report said the result, as usual in special elections, could depend on turnout and therefore is harder to predict.
However, "the combination of public and private survey research and anecdotal information now strongly suggests that Republican Scott Brown will defeat Democrat Martha Coakley."
In a last-minute bid to reverse that momentum, Coakley aired a new TV campaign ad Monday featuring Obama's appearance on Sunday in which he praised her achievements. That, analysts said, was aimed at getting the party's base to hit the polls.
The White House insists that Coakley can pull off a victory -- and that health care reform is safe.
"The plan to get health care passed is to continue to do what we're doing in ironing out the differences between the House and Senate," spokesman Robert Gibbs said Sunday.
"I said this on Friday when I was asked, and I'll say it on Sunday on the ride home -- we think Martha Coakley is going to win this race."
© AFP 2013