His agenda at risk, President Barack Obama fought Sunday to save a struggling Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and the critical 60th vote needed for his health care plan. The White House and congressional Democrats scrambled to find a way to pass the bill quickly if Martha Coakley loses a special election Tuesday.
"Understand what's at stake here Massachusetts. It's whether we're going forward or going backwards," Obama said during a rally for Coakley as he tried to energize his dispirited base in this Democratic stronghold. "If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election."
The president made a direct appeal to independents who are trending away from the Democrat and sought to court voters angry over Wall Street abuses. He assailed GOP candidate Scott Brown, who downplayed his party affiliation during the campaign, as just another typical Republican who sides with special interests.
"Martha's opponent already is walking in lockstep with Washington Republicans," Obama said, criticizing Brown for opposing the president's proposed tax on banks that received federal bailout money. "She's got your back, her opponent's got Wall Street's back. Bankers don't need another vote in the United States Senate. They've got plenty. Where's yours?"
The unexpectedly tight race for the seat held so long by Edward M. Kennedy, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3-to-1, reflects a nasty antiestablishment environment that threatens Obama's support in Congress now and heading into this fall's elections.
Brown, a little-known state senator, has tapped into voter anger and anxiety over budget-busting spending, expanded government and high unemployment under Obama to pull even with Coakley, the state's attorney general.
"It's us against the machine," Brown said in Worcester, alongside former Boston College football star Doug Flutie and former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. "The establishment is afraid of losing their Senate seat. You can all remind them that this is not their seat, it is yours."
No matter who wins, the shockingly close contest in one of the country's most Democratic states is likely to put a lasting scare in Democrats, raise questions about Obama's political strength and test his party's resolve about his agenda, particularly health care.
If elected, Brown says he would vote against Obama's health care bill, robbing Democrats of the 60-vote majority needed to prevent Republicans from blocking it and other parts of Obama's agenda.
"A lot of these measures are going to rest on one vote in the United States Senate," Obama said.
In Washington, White House aides and Democratic lawmakers frantically hashed out plans to save the health care bill in case of a Brown upset. The likeliest scenario emerging would require House Democrats to accept a bill the Senate passed last month, despite their objections to several parts. Obama could sign it into law without another Senate vote needed. House leaders would urge the Senate to make changes later under a complex plan the 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.
Earlier Sunday, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky portrayed the Massachusetts contest as a national referendum on the health care measure. "If it's unpopular in Massachusetts, it's unpopular everywhere," McConnell said on "Fox News Sunday."
He said whoever wins should be sworn in promptly.
State officials say it could take more than two weeks to certify the election results, maybe enough time for Democrats to push Obama's signature legislation through Congress before Brown could take office. Sen. Paul G. Kirk Jr., the interim appointee to Kennedy's seat, says he will vote for the bill if given the chance.
Tuesday's election will be held a day shy of the one-year anniversary of Obama's swearing-in.
Turnout will be critical, and Democrats and Republicans worked feverishly to get voters out. Obama's campaign apparatus, Organizing for America, descended on the state, with some 3,500 volunteers making 575,000 voter contacts on Saturday alone.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and GOP presidential nominee John McCain sent e-mails urging supporters to make calls on Brown's behalf, while former Bush White House adviser Karl Rove used his Twitter account to link to a phone-banking site.
In his 25-minute speech in Boston, Obama acknowledged the ill wind blowing through the country, and pleaded with Massachusetts voters and other Americans to be patient.
"We're in tough times right now. We're still dealing with an economic crisis unlike any we've seen since the Great Depression," he told some 1,500 people at Northeastern University. "People are frustrated and they are angry and they have every right to be. ... No matter how much progress we make it can't come fast enough for the people who need it right now, today."
"It hasn't been quick. It hasn't been easy but we've begun to deliver on the change you voted for," he added.
The extraordinary presidential visit showed how much was on the line for Obama and the Democratic-run Congress.
It was a sensitive time for Obama to leave Washington and campaign for a seat that his party has held for more than a half-century. Health care negotiations with Congress are at their most critical stage, and Obama has focused on helping Haiti recovery from last week's devastating earthquake.
But, with the race this tight, Democrats needed Obama to rally their loyalists. That said, the president's popularity isn't what it was when he took office on Jan. 20, 2009. Polls now show Obama's job approval hovering around 50 percent or below it. In Massachusetts, a Suffolk University poll released Thursday showed that only 48 percent approve of Obama's performance.
Obama's ability to persuade voters to back Democrats if he's not on the ballot is in question. In November, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and Democrat Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee to replace Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia, both lost even though Obama campaigned hard for them.
Sidoti reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy, Glen Johnson and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
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