WASHINGTON (AP) — Popular Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown appears rattled for the first time since grabbing the late Democrat Edward Kennedy's seat 16 months ago.
Brown, widely seen as an early favorite to win his first full term in 2012, has been stung by a gaffe involving photos that he mistakenly said showed Osama bin Laden's body and rocked by a $1 million ad blitz attacking his environmental record.
The freshman senator's woes have been a jolt of energy for Democrats, who have been desperate to win back a seat they feel is historically theirs.
"There are some cracks showing now," said John Walsh, Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman.
Brown declined to be interviewed by the AP. In a statement, political adviser Eric Fehrnstrom lashed back, saying, "We're already seeing a repeat of the ugly negative campaign the political machine ran against Scott Brown last time."
There are plenty of indications that Brown is still in solid shape for his first re-election bid. Polls show he's the most popular politician in the state and has a whopping $8.3 million in his campaign account.
Tellingly, Democrats have had trouble finding a big-name candidate willing and able to take him on. The current field includes Setti Warren, the first-term mayor of the affluent Boston suburb of Newton and the state's first popularly elected black mayor; City Year youth program co-founder Alan Khazei and Robert Massie, a former lieutenant governor candidate.
A long, costly and divisive primary could also hurt Democratic hopes. There's no sign party officials will try to unite Democrats behind a single Brown challenger.
Still, Brown, a former state senator know for posing nude in Cosmopolitan magazine as a law student, is not home free.
"As popular as Scott Brown is ... he's still fairly new to most Massachusetts voters so their views of him may be a little more fluid than someone who has been in office longer," said Timothy Vercellotti, associate professor of political science and polling director at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass.
The race will have national significance. Democrats are facing a tough fight in 2012 to hang onto their slim Senate majority and Brown is a prime target.
Democrats pounced on Brown's boast in recent TV interviews about seeing gruesome photos of bin Laden after the terrorist leader was shot. He suggested he saw the photos at an official briefing for senators.
"Let me assure you that he is dead, that bin Laden is dead," he told New England Cable News. "I have seen the photos and, in fact, we've received the briefings and we'll continue to get the briefings."
That wasn't true.
Brown, a member of the Senate Armed Services committee, admitted later that he'd been snookered by bogus photos circulating on the Internet. The usually camera-friendly senator ducked reporters seeking to question him about it.
Brown's campaign image as a straight-talking average guy driving a pickup truck in casual gear took a big hit from the photo flap. A Boston Herald columnist mocked him as "Dan Quayle in a barn coat," a reference to the former vice president who was ridiculed by critics as being unprepared for his job.
The bin Laden photo gaffe, coupled with a hard-hitting ad campaign by the League of Women Voters assailing Brown's environmental record, have given Democrats an opening to press their case that Brown is a lightweight, out of his depth in the Senate and too conservative for liberal Massachusetts.
"This guy hasn't been in that kind of spotlight before," said Doug Rubin, the former top political strategist for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. "So this is a recipe for Democrats to stay in his face."
Brown, a former state senator known for posing nude in Cosmopolitan magazine as a law student, faced little scrutiny in the brief special election for the seat Kennedy held for nearly a half-century, Rubin added.
The television spot, non-partisan ads advocating clean air, hits Brown for voting with other Republicans to ban the Environmental Protection Agency from controlling greenhouse gases. It shows a child wheezing through an oxygen mask and urges Brown to side with people, not polluters.
The ad struck a nerve with Brown, who accused the league of "gutter politics" and of being "a pawn in the Massachusetts political machine."
Democrats, too, have accused Brown of "going Washington" with his appearances at glitzy social events and his book, "Against All Odds: My Life of Hardships, Fast Breaks and Second Chances." They say few freshman senators would have the pluck to write an autobiography, let alone orchestrate an exclusive launch for the book on TV's "60 Minutes" show as Brown did.
The book includes allegations of sexual abuse as a child.
Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg in Boston contributed to this report.
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