News Analysis

With clock ticking down, candidates’ attacks ramp up

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / January 12, 2010

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With last night’s edgy, brisk final televised debate, the once leisurely special election for the US Senate got a rocket boost into its closing week. In an hour of almost nonstop confrontation, Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat, and state Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, offered Massachusetts voters starkly different choices on virtually every major issue. And independent candidate Joseph L. Kennedy also got in some licks.

The fast pace and sharp exchanges during the debate at the University of Massachusetts Boston reflect the sudden urgency of the contest following a series of polls in the past week that show the race as surprisingly competitive for such an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

With the fate of a national health care bill probably hanging in the balance, the Jan. 19 election to fill the seat long held by Senator Edward M. Kennedy has increasingly taken on greater national significance, as leading figures in both parties have jumped into the battle.

Brown cast himself as the potential 41st vote in the Senate to kill the bill and “send it back to the drawing board.’’ Coakley said she would almost certainly be the decisive vote in passing a compromise version that has yet to emerge.

Brown said the bill before Congress is broken and will penalize Massachusetts, while Coakley said the health care system in the country is broken and a probable compromise will be an incremental step toward fixing it.

Brown, the underdog, was the aggressor for most of the night, using his opposition to the health care bill and civilian trials for terrorists and support for tax cuts and President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan to draw clear contrasts. Coakley, the heavy favorite, parried Brown with more scalpel-like responses reflecting nuanced positions that are the opposite of Brown’s.

At several junctures, Coakley tried to link Brown to the Bush-Cheney administration and policies, while Brown lumped Coakley in with the Democratic “machine’’ now in power in Washington.

It was in stark contrast to the primary debates, when Coakley was pressed rarely and lightly by her three Democratic opponents, who feared a gender backlash if they seemed too aggressive toward the candidate seeking to become the first woman from Massachusetts elected to the Senate.

Coakley, who has made abortion rights a centerpiece of her candidacy, returned to the issue during the candidate-to-candidate questioning period, trying to undercut his contention that he is a supporter of abortion rights by pointing out his endorsement by the state’s leading antiabortion group and his sponsorship of an amendment to a bill in 2005 that required hospitals to offer emergency contraception to rape victims. Brown’s amendment, which was defeated, would have exempted hospital personnel with strong religious beliefs from the mandate.

Brown, however, seemed calculated in his response, saying he would never deny the treatment to his daughters, both now college students, if they were victimized.

“I’m not a defendant in your court,’’ he retorted, when Coakley, a career prosecutor, pressed him and tried to raise a contradiction. Brown eventually voted for the bill that did not include the exemption.

Kennedy, who is not related to the famed political clan, differed with both candidates at times, saying he opposed the health care overhaul, as well as sending more troops to Afghanistan. Neither of his opponents has advanced any serious proposals to reduce government spending, said Kennedy, a member of the Libertarian Party, who is in single digits in the polls.

The debate, sponsored by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate and moderated by David Gergen of Harvard’s Kennedy School, was the only confrontation of the campaign televised by all the Boston television stations. Coakley, who in 2006 refused to debate her Republican opponent during her campaign for attorney general, defended her decision to reject at least two other proposed debates because they would have excluded Kennedy.

She also brushed aside criticism that she has been trying to run out the clock in the campaign by being less visible as a candidate.

“Look at the volunteers; look at the phone calling,’’ Coakley said. “I’m working very hard day and night.’’

If Coakley was coasting through the first five weeks of the election campaign, she is not now. After the spate of polls showing the contest is competitive, ranging anywhere from a 15-point lead for Coakley to a dead heat, she has become more aggressive, and her campaign has called in reinforcements.

Obama released a statement yesterday through his campaign apparatus urging his supporters in Massachusetts to get behind her, and former president Bill Clinton plans to stump for her in the Bay State on Friday.

Moreover, her campaign announced last night the release of her first negative spot, titled “Lockstep Republican,’’ which slams Brown’s conservative positions.