David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
MEDFORD -- Key members of the Kennedy family bestowed their political blessing today on Attorney General Martha Coakley, casting her as the US Senate candidate best equipped to fulfill Edward M. Kennedy's legacy on health care.
"We need Martha. We want Martha," the senator's widow, Vicki Kennedy, said in endorsing Coakley at a Medford senior center, at one point mimicking her late husband's deep grumble.
"As Ted would say, 'Jan. 19 is the date,'" she said, lowering her chin and her voice. "'Martha Coakley is the candidate.'"
Standing before a massive American flag, Coakley also basked in the praise of Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former member of Congress and the late senator's nephew who opted out of the race; Joe Kennedy's son, Joseph Kennedy III; and Senator Paul G. Kirk, a long-time Kennedy friend temporarily occupying the seat.
"There's very little left for me to say," Coakley said sheepishly when she took the stage. "I feel a little bit like I'm the anticlimax of what is personally a tremendously emotional morning for me."
The endorsements come amid signs the race is beginning to draw more national attention. The Republican National Committee has made its first donation to GOP candidate Scott Brown, a state senator from Wrentham, and a conservative nonprofit group took out $400,000 worth of TV ads that seek to brand Coakley as a tax-raising liberal.
Brown, as Coakley was receiving the Kennedy endorsements, touted his support from ordinary voters, posting an online video showing about a dozen potential voters – who were recorded outside Fenway Park before the hockey game last week -- talking about why they supported his campaign.
"I'm tired of the same old politics in Boston, I think it's time for a change," one voter says.
With less than two weeks before the vote, the Kennedy endorsements marked the first time that the family has been active in the campaign in a major way.
Coakley has not enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Kennedys, who were said to have been upset that she jumped into the race so quickly after the senator died in August. There were few signs of discord this morning, though, with Coakley enjoying the warm embrace of several family members and, at times, leaning over to whisper into Vicki’s ear.
After expressing her gratitude, Coakley zeroed in on the importance of passing an overhaul of the nation's health care system. Brown and the third candidate in the race, independent Joseph L. Kennedy, who is no relation to the legendary Kennedy clan, oppose the bills pending in Congress.
The 30-second negative ad against Coakley comes from American Future Fund, a conservative organization, and cut by Larry McCarthy, who worked for Governor Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign and produced the infamous 1988 "Willie Horton" ad that damaged Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign that year.
The ad against Coakley quotes her saying, “We need to get taxes up,” a line that appears to have been taken out of context from a primary debate, during which Coakley seemed to suggest that the economy needed to improve so that tax collections would rise.
"We do need to get out of this recession, also, and that requires, I think, looking at a couple of things," she said during a debate at Suffolk University, in response to a question about lowering the federal deficit. "There's no magic bullet to this. We need to get people back to work, we need to get taxes up, and we'll start to chip away at that deficit."
"It's open to interpretation," said Nick Ryan, a spokesman for the American Future Fund. "When you put together her record of not just statements but also her attitudes about a tax, almost a flippant attitude about raising taxes, I think it’s pretty clear that Ms. Coakley is the candidate that is open to raising taxes."
The TV spot began airing last night and will run for five days, Ryan said, but the group may take out additional ads.
Senator John Kerry, who is supporting Coakley, blasted the ad and said the state's next senator "should be selected by the people of Massachusetts, not by the big money anonymous shadowy Republican front groups that swoop in to distort and deceive."
Because the organization is registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, it does not have to reveal its contributors.
"These smear tactics from the Karl Rove playbook say only one thing – that Scott Brown is beholden to the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. The people of Massachusetts deserve better," said Coakley spokesman Corey Welford.
Brown later disavowed the ad, saying in a statement: "I wish this weren't happening. This race is not going to be decided by outside groups. It will come down to the very real differences that exist between myself and Martha Coakley on taxes, spending, treatment of terrorists and ending business as usual in Washington.
During the Democratic primary, Coakley received about $400,000 in outside help, most of it through the SEIU's $214,448 radio ad campaign. EMILY's List and the political arm of Planned Parenthood also provided financial help for phone calls and campaign mailings.
Brown's campaign started the 19-day stretch run to the election with $367,151 cash on hand, according to its latest report filed today and summary pages provided to the Globe. From Nov. 19 to Dec. 31, the Republican collected $752,358 in contributions, about 40 percent in unitemized donations of $200 or less, and spent $641,965. The figure includes the first sign of national party investment in the race -- $21,300 from the Republican National Committee, said Felix Browne, a campaign spokesman.
Coakley's campaign, as of late today, had not released details of its report. The campaign early in the week said it had raised more than $1 million since Nov. 19. But the campaign did not disclose how much cash it had on hand as of Dec. 31.
Brian Mooney and Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.
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