BOSTON -- A special election campaign to fill the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat gives state Republicans something they've sorely missed for the past three years: a place in the political spotlight.
Since Mitt Romney left the Statehouse to pursue his 2008 presidential campaign and his one-time running mate Kerry Healey failed to hold the governor's office after a 16-year run of GOP control, an already anemic Massachusetts Republican Party has further atrophied in one of the nation's bluest Democratic states.
Now its most immediate hope for revival is Scott Brown, one of just five Republicans in the state Senate. He won Tuesday's Republican primary and will go head-to-head in the Jan. 19 special election with the winner of the four-way Democratic race, Attorney General Martha Coakley.
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Brown and his team are relishing the opportunity.
"The voters will have a clear choice: Do they want to send somebody down there who is going to be in lockstep with (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid and do what they're told, or do they want somebody who's going to be down there looking for the interests of Massachusetts?" Brown told The Associated Press in an interview.
Coakley ignored Brown in her victory speech, but she didn't shy away from aligning herself with President Barack Obama or congressional Democrats during an interview with the AP this week.
"We overwhelmingly elected a Democratic president who has an agenda to bring change to the way we do business here in this country," she said. "So I look forward to making that part of why it's important to send a Democratic senator to Washington to help affect that change."
Coakley added, "By and large, the Republican Party has sort of sat on their hands, refusing to acknowledge that we're in a huge economic mess, that we need to do something about it -- by the way, one created under their jurisdiction over the last eight years."
Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor, said the challenge confronting Brown is highlighted by the lack of national financial support he received for his campaign.
"The (Republican National Committee) and its affiliated committees have decided he doesn't have a chance, which makes it something of a self-fulfilling prophecy," Berry said. "They are hard-nosed, and they don't see it as a very good investment amid competing demands."
RNC spokesman Tyler Brown said the national party will work with the state party "to make sure he has the resources he needs to win," but he wouldn't discuss dollar figures or strategies.
Kennedy died of brain cancer in August at age 77, ending a nearly 47-year political career that saw him become the fourth-longest-serving senator in U.S. history.
Expectations for a high-profile succession battle fizzled, with Kennedy's widow, Vicki Kennedy, and the bulk of the state's most prominent politicians deciding against campaigns.
Coakley bested Rep. Michael Capuano, City Year service organization co-founder Alan Khazei and Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca.
Coakley garnered 47 percent of the vote. Capuano had 28 percent, Khazei had 13 percent and Pagliuca, despite spending more than $5 million of his own money, finished with 12 percent.
Scott Brown almost had the GOP race to himself before perennial candidate Jack E. Robinson launched a last-minute nomination signature drive. Brown beat him by a margin of 89 percent to 11 percent.
Coakley, 56, targeted women and abortion rights supporters. She also urged voters to assess her resume as a federal prosecutor, district attorney and, since 2007, the state's top law enforcement officer.
Brown, 50, is an attorney, lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard and triathlete whose personal life has made him a staple of the local tabloid.
His elder daughter, Ayla, was a semifinalist in the 2006 "American Idol" televised talent show, and he helped pay his law school bills by posing naked in the June 1982 edition of Cosmopolitan.
One immediate policy flashpoint: Coakley opposes Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, while Brown supports it.
A Brown aide said the campaign was eager to highlight such differences.
"I think the recent election in New Jersey and in the one in Virginia, which is a swing state, sent a very strong message that people are fed up with business as usual in Washington and they want to see the pendulum swing back in the direction of fiscal prudence," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Brown senior adviser.
Berry, the Tufts professor, said Romney's personal and political story highlights the opportunity available to Brown during the coming month.
In 1994, Romney gave Kennedy the stiffest re-election challenge of his career, even in defeat. He then returned to the private sector, left again to resurrect the financially troubled 2002 Olympic Winter Games and was embraced upon his return to Massachusetts and easily elected governor that fall.
Berry said that through the campaign Brown will get the recognition he seems to be seeking.
"The downside to that," Berry said, "is if he gets beaten really badly, that doesn't augur well for a race he might otherwise have a shot of winning in the future."
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