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In Massachusetts, the race to fill the Senate seat long held by Edward Kennedy is giving Democrats something they hadn't counted on: A fight.

Democrats hold a 3-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans in the state. But the GOP candidate Scott Brown has waged an energetic campaign, and he's polling well against the Democrat, Attorney General Martha Coakley. Voters head to the polls next Tuesday. And in these final days, both sides are pulling out all the stops.

From member station WBUR in Boston, Monica Brady-Myerov reports.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: What's at stake in the Massachusetts Senate race, from a national perspective, is the health care legislation currently before Congress. Democrat Martha Coakley's yes vote could secure its passage. A victory by State Senator Scott Brown, who opposes it, could rob the Democrats of 60 votes in the Senate. The race is crucial to the national fortunes of the two major parties.

Until two months ago, the Republican Senate candidate was a relative unknown. Jennifer Nassour, who chairs the state GOP, gives Brown a lot of credit for changing that.

Ms. JENNIFER NASSOUR (Chair, GOP, Massachusetts): 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.

BRADY-MYEROV: 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. Coupled with his celebrity magazine good looks, he was a Cosmopolitan centerfold in 1982. Brown has become a serious contender.

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

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

Mr. MICHAEL GOLDMAN (Democratic Strategist): 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.

BRADY-MYEROV: So Martha 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 tax cuts. A black-and-white image of Kennedy speaking fades into one of Brown finishing Kennedy's speech.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Would have both immediate and permanent benefits to our economy.

State Senator SCOTT BROWN (Republican, Senatorial Candidate): Every dollar released from taxation that is spent or invested will help create a new job and a new salary.

BRADY-MYEROV: Democrats say using JFK was a phony device, but people took notice, to the amazement of strategist Goldman.

Mr. GOLDMAN: Lots of people think he's a really swell fellow, you know, 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.

BRADY-MYEROV: 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.

Mr. RON KAUFMAN (Former Political Director, White House): Right now, like most of America, they're upset with what's going on in this country. They're upset with health care. They're upset with spending. They're upset with huge deficits. They're upset with terrorism. And they are in sync with where Scott Brown is on these issues and where she's not.

BRADY-MYEROV: 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 this attack ad.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man: Who is Scott Brown, really? A Republican in lockstep with Washington Republicans.

BRADY-MYEROV: Brown has received little overt support from the national GOP, but he's 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 the seat they've held since John F. Kennedy could go to a Republican.

But just in case, they're bringing in Bill Clinton tomorrow to fire up the troops. Because for Democrats nationwide, a win in Massachusetts could secure the passage of Senator Ted Kennedy's dream of universal health care.

For NPR News, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov in Boston.

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