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Obama tries to rescue Senate race - and himself

U.S. President Barack Obama and Massachusetts Senate candidate Martha Coakley wave during a campaign rally at Northeastern University in Boston.


Laying his presidential prestige on the line to protect a threatened Senate seat in about the most Democratic state in the Union is not how Barack Obama thought he would be marking the first anniversary of his inauguration.

Yet, that is the risk the U.S. President found himself compelled to take, headlining an eleventh-hour Democratic rally in Boston to plead with the party faithful not to abandon him just when he needs them most.

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"If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election," Mr. Obama cried out to supporters - and one persistent heckler who threw him off track for several moments - in the Northeastern University gym yesterday. "Understand what's at stake here in Massachusetts. It's whether we're going forwards or backwards."

The fate of health-care reform, clean-energy legislation and a crackdown on Wall Street - in fact, just about Mr. Obama's entire agenda - could now be decided by a few thousand voters in Massachusetts, where Martha Coakley stands to become the first Democrat to lose a Senate race there since 1972.

That it has come to this speaks to everything that has gone wrong during Mr. Obama's first year in office, some of which is his fault, most of which is not. But if the President hopes to avoid legislative gridlock during his second year in the White House, he needs Ms. Coakley, the state's elected attorney-general, to beat Republican Scott Brown tomorrow.

For 47 years until his death in August, the senior senator from Massachusetts was the inimitable Ted Kennedy, a liberal lion who made Mr. Obama look like a Blue Dog (a conservative member of the Democratic caucus). In his nine elections, Mr. Kennedy only twice took less than 60 per cent of the vote. Most times, it was closer to 70.

A former aide has filled Mr. Kennedy's seat since his death, ensuring the Democrats have the 60 Senate seats they need to overcome a Republican filibuster that would stall legislation in Congress. For Mr. Obama, that 60th vote is the difference between passing health-care reform or seeing it die altogether, between enacting cap-and-trade legislation or not, between continuing his economic stimulus or being forced to cut spending.

If you needed evidence about just how polarized Americans have become on these issues you need look no further than Massachusetts, where both the Republican and Democratic candidates are telling voters the same thing: Either give Mr. Obama the 60 Senate seats he needs to proceed with his agenda, or give the Republicans the 41 they need to stop it in its tracks.

Massachusetts is about the last place anyone would have expected this kind of debate. It is essentially a one-party state. Its 10 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are all Democrats. Its other seat in the U.S Senate has been held by one-time presidential hopeful John Kerry since 1985.

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The state legislature, called the General Court, is similarly dominated by Democrats. They hold 144 of the 160 seats in the lower house and 35 of the 40 in the state Senate. And the governor is a Democrat, too.

Sure, Massachusetts has elected the occasional Republican to higher office. Mitt Romney, the once and likely future GOP presidential contender, was governor for four years until 2006. And Paul Cellucci held the office for two years before becoming U.S. ambassador to Canada in 2001.

But Mr. Romney, in particular, governed like a Democrat. He made Massachusetts the first state to ensure that virtually all of its citizens have access to health insurance. His reform has served as the template for Democrats in Congress as they put the finishing touches on the final health-care bill they hope to send to Mr. Obama's desk by next month.

Yet, voters in Massachusetts remain among the least supportive of the Obama reform, precisely because they feel they would get less of a net benefit from the federal plan than citizens in any other state but would have to pay their share of the additional taxes needed to finance it.

That has made voters particularly receptive to the argument forwarded by Mr. Brown, 50, a little known state senator before winning the Republican nomination, that health care should be left to the states. Send Ms. Coakley, 56, to Washington and watch your taxes go up, he says. Send me and watch the deficit go down.

The national Democratic establishment is worried. It forced Mr. Obama to go to Boston - the White House had insisted he would not meddle in the campaign - and poured millions of dollars into anti-Brown advertising in the last 10 days, portraying the Republican as a social conservative who would deny rape victims emergency care.

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"Scott Brown wants hospitals to turn them all away," the ads warn.

That's more than a stretch and it doesn't quite have the same ring as "Yes We Can." But the suddenly real prospect of losing Ted Kennedy's seat - and turning the de facto Democratic tag line into "No We Can't" - calls for desperate measures.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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