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Massachusetts Senate Race Closer Than Expected
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Massachusetts Senate Race Closer Than Expected

Politics

Massachusetts Senate Race Closer Than Expected

Massachusetts Senate Race Closer Than Expected
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Senate candidates Brown and Coakley prepare for a debate at the University of Massachusetts. i

State Sen. Scott Brown and Attorney General Martha Coakley prepare for a debate Jan. 11 at the University of Massachusetts. Darren McCollester/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Senate candidates Brown and Coakley prepare for a debate at the University of Massachusetts.

State Sen. Scott Brown and Attorney General Martha Coakley prepare for a debate Jan. 11 at the University of Massachusetts.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

The race Tuesday for the Senate seat long held by Edward Kennedy was not supposed to be close. In Massachusetts, Democrats hold a 3-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans, who have not elected a U.S. senator there since 1972.

But GOP candidate and state Sen. Scott Brown is making a fight out of it. He has waged an energetic campaign against Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley, who has spent the past month basically coasting.

Read Analysis On NPR's Political Junkie Blog

Democrats are suddenly so concerned that former President Bill Clinton is going to campaign for Coakley on Friday.

That's because polls show Coakley's lead over Brown has narrowed dramatically — to as little as 2 points, according to the most recent Rasmussen Reports.

Senate Health Bill Hangs In The Balance

From a national perspective, what's at stake in the Massachusetts Senate race is the health care legislation currently before Congress. Coakley's "yes" vote could secure its passage. A victory by Brown, who opposes it, would rob the Democrats of 60 votes in the Senate. The race is crucial to the national fortunes of the two major parties.

Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley leaves an American Legion Post in Cambridge i

Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley leaves an American Legion Post on Jan. 4 in Cambridge, Mass. Steven Senne/AP hide caption

toggle caption Steven Senne/AP
Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley leaves an American Legion Post in Cambridge

Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley leaves an American Legion Post on Jan. 4 in Cambridge, Mass.

Steven Senne/AP

Until two months ago, Brown was a relative unknown. Jennifer Nassour, the chairwoman of the state GOP, gives him a lot of credit for changing that.

"When you see someone with such a great positive attitude about what he's doing, and when people keep telling you, 'God, you have an uphill battle,' and you walk in with a smile on your face and say, 'I can do this,' you start to make people believe that you can do it," she says.

Brown's campaign language has the aura of a revolutionary crusade. He talks about red invading the blue state and calls his fundraisers "money bombs." Add his celebrity-magazine good looks — he was a Cosmopolitan centerfold in 1982 — and Brown has become a serious contender.

Coakley beat three other candidates in the Democratic primary. She has a strong record regulating banks, defending gay marriage and protecting children. But she has been criticized for a passionless style that suits a courtroom more than the campaign trail.

Brown Defined Himself As A Moderate

Democrats have themselves to blame for giving Republicans hope, says longtime Democratic strategist Michael Goldman.

"I think that it was easy to believe post the primary that the Brown campaign was never going to get the kind of traction or attention that would force her to engage," he says.

Republican State Sen. Scott Brown has positioned himself as a moderate Republican. i

Republican State Sen. Scott Brown has positioned himself as a moderate Republican. Steven Senne/AP hide caption

toggle caption Steven Senne/AP
Republican State Sen. Scott Brown has positioned himself as a moderate Republican.

Republican State Sen. Scott Brown has positioned himself as a moderate Republican.

Steven Senne/AP

So Coakley coasted, holding few campaign events and not putting on TV ads until recently.

And Democrats let Brown define himself. In his first TV ad, Brown compared himself to John F. Kennedy on the issue of tax cuts. A black-and-white image of Kennedy speaking fades into one of Brown finishing Kennedy's speech. Democrats say using Kennedy was a phony device. But people took notice, to the amazement of strategist Goldman.

"Lots of people think he's a really swell fellow, basically a moderate Republican — maybe even a conservative Democrat — when in fact this person has been and is an extremely conservative Republican, far to the right of anyone we've elected in this state," Goldman says.

Brown favors the death penalty. He's against gay marriage. He questions whether global warming is man-made or natural. And he's been endorsed by an anti-abortion group.

Ron Kaufman, former White House political director under the first President Bush and a longtime Republican strategist, says Brown's climb in the polls should be credited to his stance on issues voters care about.

"Right now, like most of America, they are upset with what's going on in this country, they are upset with health care, they are upset with spending, they are upset with huge deficits, they are upset with terrorism, and they are in sync with where Scott Brown is on issues and where she's not," Kaufman says.

Down To The Wire

Still, in polls, voters say they see Coakley as the best candidate to handle issues such as taxes, the economy and health care. And this week her campaign struck back with an attack ad that says: "Who is Scott Brown, really? A Republican in lock step with Washington Republicans."

Brown has received little overt support from the national GOP, but he has been getting funding from conservatives around the country, including Tea Party activists.

In contrast, national Democrats have been pouring in money and staffers on behalf of Coakley. In their gut, and in their internal polling, Democrats find it almost impossible to believe that this Senate seat they've held since John F. Kennedy could go to a Republican.

But just in case, they are bringing in Clinton to fire up the troops. That's because for Democrats nationwide, a win in Massachusetts could secure the passage of Sen. Ted Kennedy's dream of universal health care.

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