Round 1 decision time

Voter turnout a key in today’s Senate primary showdowns

By Brian C. Mooney and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 8, 2009

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For three months, the candidates for US Senate have tried to generate voter excitement for a special primary election that has often seemed to be off the public’s radar. Today, with low turnout expected across the state, their campaign organizations will pull out all the stops to get those voters who were paying attention into the polling booths.

The four Democrats scrambled to reach late-deciding voters yesterday by every means possible, by airwaves, telephone, in person, and via the Internet, and then turned the campaigns over to their ground games for today’s final push.

The campaigns of Attorney General Martha Coakley, US Representative Michael E. Capuano, City Year cofounder Alan Khazei, and Celtics co-owner Stephen G. Pagliuca are all operating on models assuming a turnout of 500,000 or fewer voters.

They are targeting voters they are certain will vote, providing transportation for those who need it, and trying to stoke enthusiasm among the thousands of volunteers working the polling places and the phones.

“It’s all about turnout, and it’s all about the ground game,’’ said Roger Lau, Capuano’s campaign manager.

The winner of the Democratic race will face off in the Jan. 19 special election against the winner of today’s Republican primary, state Senator Scott Brown or Duxbury businessman Jack E. Robinson, who appeared in their only televised debate last night on WGBH-TV.

An independent candidate, Joseph L. Kennedy of Dedham, also filed sufficient signatures yesterday to qualify for the special election ballot, Secretary of State William F. Galvin said.

Turnout will probably be light, Galvin said, because of the off-season timing of the primary and a forecast of cold temperatures in the upper 30s. He projected it could be up to 600,000 voters out of 4.1 million eligible to cast ballots.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Coakley and Capuano will probably have the largest organizations on the ground today, supplied in large part by the labor unions and political figures who have endorsed them.

Capuano’s campaign must pull every possible vote out of his compact congressional district, by far the most liberal and Democratic in the state. In last year’s election, President Obama captured 85 percent of the vote in the Eighth District, 20 points more than the next most Democratic among the nine other districts in the state. The Eighth District includes Somerville, Cambridge, Chelsea, and about half of Boston, including nearly all of its predominantly African-American and Hispanic precincts.

The Capuano campaign has been running automated telephone calls, known as robocalls, featuring former governor Michael S. Dukakis and targeted calls with messages from local officials, including district city councilors in Boston, all nine of whom are supporting Capuano.

Yesterday, Capuano underscored the importance of his field operation by stopping by a union phone bank in Natick with Dukakis and his wife, Kitty. Making his way through a sea of supporters, Capuano expressed confidence that his “personal touch’’ with voters would put him over the top.

“There’s no other campaign that’s doing this,’’ Capuano told a room full of supporters and around a dozen volunteers at the National Postal Mail Handlers Local 301, who spent the day making phone calls to undecided voters across the state.

Coakley is banking on her support in Middlesex County, home to nearly a quarter of the state’s voters. She served two terms as Middlesex district attorney before winning the attorney general’s post in 2006.

“Certainly, because she’s very well known there, Middlesex is a key area, but this is very much a statewide effort,’’ said Alex Zaroulis, Coakley’s spokeswoman.

Coakley has closed the campaign with a series of rally-like events around the state, culminating with one late yesterday at the big union hall in Dorchester of electrical workers Local 103, accompanied by state Senate President Therese Murray.

Supporters chanted “Martha! Martha!’’ and “Yes we can!’’

“We’re down to the wire,’’ Murray told them. “They can say she’s ahead in the polls, but we’ve seen the polls lie before.’’

Coakley then addressed the crowd, saying, “There may be a low turnout for the other candidates, but not for Coakley voters.’’

“We feel very strong going into tomorrow,’’ she said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed, double-crossed, upside-down.’’

Today, Pagliuca’s campaign will send robocalls featuring Celtics coach Doc Rivers and star Ray Allen to 200,000 voters, in hope that will push more people to vote.

“We need a high turnout,’’ Pagliuca said as he campaigned with the 2008 NBA championship trophy in Copley Square. “Our surveys are showing that we do very, very well in a high turnout, we can win this in a high turnout.’’

Several cars honked and a smattering of passersby stopped, but there was a noticeable increase in activity once the campaign brought out the trophy.

“Hey, Steve, how’s it going, pal?’’ said Vinny Brandano, who helps run a plumbing and heating business.

“Hey, can we get a picture with the trophy?’’ asked Michael Brandano.

Pagliuca, wearing an oversized Celtics parka with his brown slacks and loafers, posed dutifully for the photo.

Pagliuca’s campaign, which has outspent all others by a wide margin, with at least $7.6 million of Pagliuca’s personal fortune, has zeroed in on urban areas hardest hit by the recession, touting the candidate’s private-sector experience in creating jobs, his spokesman, Will Keyser, said. That includes Lowell, Fall River, New Bedford, Brockton, Worcester, and Springfield.

A first-time candidate, Khazei invested heavily in a field organization and technology to build grass-roots support among voters who are not regulars in the political system, said adviser Michael Meehan. The campaign concentrated on places where “his outsider, hopeful, ‘Big Citizenship’ message’’ would resonate, Meehan said. Those include traditionally liberal areas, including his hometown of Brookline, parts of Capuano’s district in Cambridge, and Boston’s minority community.

Khazei is also sending to 500,000 voters a robocall from Max Kennedy, son of the late Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of Edward M. Kennedy, who held the Senate seat for nearly 47 years until his death in August.

Khazei closed the campaign with an all-nighter, stumping nonstop for 40 hours, starting in Lenox, near the New York border. Last night, Khazei and his 7-year-old daughter, Mirabelle, greeted commuters at Dudley Station in Roxbury.

“Alan Khazei - sounds like Jay-Z,’’ Ron Bell, one of his senior advisors, told voters as they shook the candidate’s hand. “You’ve got to relate to the people. That’s what grass roots is all about.’’

Khazei described himself as the guy who started City Year. “You know, the kids with the red jackets,’’ he told Elsie Francese, of Mission Hill.

“Oh, you did? My grandson is involved in that,’’ said Francese, who pledged her vote.

And what about sleep? That’s for after the election, Khazei said.

“I want to meet everybody I can - send a message that I’m going to work harder than anybody,’’ he said.

In last night’s GOP debate, Brown and Robinson clashed on the war in Afghanistan.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to defeat the Taliban,’’ Robinson said, renewing his call for peace talks, adding, “the Taliban have been there for 2,000 years, we’ve only been there for nine years.’’

Brown called talk of negotiations naive and said he supports Obama’s decision to send in 30,000 more US troops.

The two also discussed Cape Wind, the controversial offshore wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound. Robinson said he is undecided on the project, but Brown likened it to putting wind turbines in the Grand Canyon.

Globe correspondents Jack Nicas and Matt Rocheleau contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.