BOSTON — Before he died last August, Sen. Edward Kennedy called health care the "cause of my life."
Now Congress is closer than it's ever been to overhauling health care, but a special election Tuesday to fill the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat that Kennedy held for 47 years could deal a fatal blow to his cause.
Republican state Sen. Scott Brown is making an unexpectedly close run at State Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate, and the enthusiasm, not to mention the polling and momentum, seems to be with Brown.
The results could reverberate far beyond Beacon Hill or even Capitol Hill. A Coakley loss, or even a narrow victory, would be considered a rebuke to President Barack Obama in a state where he won 61.8 percent of the vote in 2008 and that hasn't elected a Republican to the U. S. Senate since 1972.
"The race has become a referendum on business as usual. That includes health care, the president, Wall Street bonuses, unemployment and crazy terrorists we can't seem to stop," Democratic consultant Dan Payne said.
In Boston's suburbs, the gritty streets of Worcester or amid the crowd heading to the Bruins hockey game in downtown Boston, voters made the same points Monday as they met the candidates: Brown, they said, has charisma, and something about Coakley bothers them.
It may be that she's embraced congressional Democrats' health care plan, but more often it's a complaint that she conveys smugness, a sense that she and the Democrats are entitled to Kennedy's seat.
"It's like she's a warm body trying to fill an empty seat. She doesn't show enough of a feel for people," said Heidi Bone, a Boston graphic designer.
Mike Keefe, a lawyer in Arlington, six miles outside Boston, voted for Kennedy and remains a registered Democrat. "Terrorism and health care," he said, are the reasons he'd vote for Brown.
"We shouldn't try terrorists in civilian courts," he said. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound plane, and the Obama administration plans to try him as a criminal rather than as an enemy combatant.
John Healey, a Plymouth probation officer, waited in line outside the hockey arena so he could shake Brown's hand, the first time he'd waited to meet a politician since John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960.
Something about Coakley, Healey said, troubles him. "She just criticizes everything," he said.
Obama came to Boston on Sunday to stump for Coakley, but on Monday, it seemed that he'd had little immediate effect.
Chris Carpenter, an information technology manager from Brookline, an upscale Boston suburb, voted for Obama, but no one speech would win back his support.
"I believed I was voting for a centrist," he said. "Now he wants a health care bill that would monopolize one-sixth of the economy by having the government manage a private enterprise. That would be a disaster."
Losing Kennedy's seat could imperil the health care bill, Obama's top 2009 domestic priority. Democrats need 60 Senate votes to cut off debate on the legislation, and in key votes last month, they mustered exactly 60 on every test.
Voters here are well aware of the stakes, and they relish their position.
"Democrats just haven't been inclusive. They did this wrong," said Scott Keene, a university financial manager from Medford, a Boston suburb.
Coakley backers, though, note that Massachusetts already has near-universal health care.
"I'd like everybody to have the opportunity we do," said Vien Dargon, a plumber from Boston's majority African-American Roxbury neighborhood.
The White House and Democratic congressional leaders are expected to push a compromise plan, but a Brown victory "would complicate things," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
In Washington, Democrats are quietly discussing what-if scenarios. The easiest, if Coakley loses, is that the House of Representatives could consider the Senate bill without amendments.
That could create trouble, though, because many House Democrats dislike the extent of the Senate's excise tax on high-end insurance policies, among other things.
Another uncertainty: when the newly elected senator would be seated to succeed Sen. Paul Kirk, a longtime Kennedy friend and reliable Democratic vote.
The new senator would take office once the state certifies the results, which usually takes at least 10 days. Senate leaders then would decide when to swear in the new member. No one's talking publicly about a timetable, either for seating the new senator or for voting on health care.
Tuesday's vote could send a longer-lasting message for November's midterm elections, particularly since 51 percent of Massachusetts' voters are independents, the swing voters that Democrats and Republicans alike covet.
Coakley tried to address those concerns Monday. Stopping at Johnny's Luncheonette in Newton, an upper-middle-class suburb where she's counting on a strong Democratic turnout, Coakley recalled her fights for consumers as attorney general and argued that "anger should be directed at Wall Street," not at Democrats.
Her message was well received, but she stirred little passion.
"She's fine, but she comes off as cold and unapproachable," said Tammy Brynie, a labor organizer having breakfast at the restaurant.
Brown was greeted like a celebrity at the TD Garden, home to Boston's Bruins and Celtics. Fans mobbed him, although a good third of the crowd was from out-of-state, in town for the game or to campaign for Brown.
Brown, 50, a former Cosmopolitan centerfold and a state senator since 2004, has been playing up his military background: He's a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts National Guard, where he's served for 30 years.
Coakley, 56, grew up in North Adams, a down-at-the-heels mill town in the rural northwestern corner of Massachusetts. A veteran prosecutor, she was elected state attorney general in 2006.
She wasn't close to the Kennedys, however, and she angered them when she began seeking the seat last summer, before the senator died. Recently, though, the Kennedys have rallied behind her, with Vicki Kennedy, the senator's widow, appearing in a TV ad.
The impact of Kennedy's legacy remains hard to gauge. At last week's debate, Brown was asked how he felt about being in "Ted Kennedy's seat."
"With all due respect," Brown fired back, "It is not Ted Kennedy's seat. It is not the Democrats' seat. It is the people of Massachusetts' seat."
That seemed to inflame Republicans and highlight the sense of Democratic entitlement.
It became one more reason for Democrats to think twice about Coakley.
"I don't feel I know enough about her," said Newton restaurant manager Barry Levinson, a Democrat. "I just don't have a comfortable feeling about her."
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