THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Rivals get their shot at Coakley tonight

AG campaigning as a front-runner

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / October 26, 2009

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Every week, it seems that Attorney General Martha Coakley looks for ways to tell voters she has the US Senate race in the bag.

First, she announced she had raised an impressive $2.2 million in the opening weeks of the campaign. The week after, she trumpeted internal polling numbers that indicated she was light-years ahead. Then it was a slew of endorsements from state lawmakers, women leaders, and Massachusetts unions.

“Isn’t that how you win any race?’’ Coakley said in an interview. “Getting ahead and staying there?’’

Nearly halfway through the contest to succeed Edward M. Kennedy, Coakley is running a classic front-runner’s campaign: guarding her image closely, limiting opportunities for missteps, and broadcasting strength in any way she can.

Tonight, Coakley faces a major test as she squares off against her three Democratic opponents in the first televised debate of the campaign, a potentially game-changing event that will give all the candidates broad statewide media exposure for the first time. Each of Coakley’s competitors has his first major chance to make a dent.

“It’s Coakley’s to lose,’’ said John Berg, chairman of the government studies department at Suffolk University. “She is running like a front-runner, and she wants to maintain that.’’

With about six weeks left before the Dec. 8 Democratic primary, the three other contenders are pursuing their own strategies as they work to meet voters, pitch a cogent message, and carve out a path to victory in a contest top campaign aides predict will be decided by 500,000 to 800,000 voters.

Stephen G. Pagliuca, a co-owner of the Boston Celtics who made millions in private equity, continues to blitz the airwaves with ads his campaign hopes will brand him as the candidate who can best bring jobs to Massachusetts.

Alan Khazei, City Year cofounder, continues to build an army of citizen supporters, whom he hopes will power him to victory through grass-roots action. (He did, though, feel the need to pay professionals to help collect signatures, to ensure he made the ballot.)

And US Representative Michael E. Capuano has been trying to balance his responsibilities in Washington with his need to press the flesh in Massachusetts, resorting to TV ads, surrogates such as his wife and sons, and phone-in town hall events to maintain a regular presence in the Bay State.

Capuano continues to peg himself as an “underdog,’’ but he argues that Coakley is no longer presumed to be the automatic winner and that he has become her top challenger.

“I’m sensing exactly what I wanted to sense, which is the coronation was stopped,’’ he said in an interview. “It’s pretty much a two-way race now. People are slowly, slowly starting to make their judgments.’’

Coakley’s front-runner status stems from several factors, including the fact that she jumped into the race more than two weeks before anyone else. She is also the only candidate to have won statewide before and has the broadest name recognition.

“People know who I am; they by and large think I’ve done a good job even though they don’t agree with everything I’ve done,’’ Coakley said. “There’s no magic to it. There’s no secret bullet in this campaign. We’re running on a good clear record and a good message of who can go to Washington and get things done. We’re going to continue with that message.’’

Still, despite Coakley’s aggressive pursuit of front-runner status, she is not necessarily taking things for granted. Her campaign has sent aides with video cameras to nearly every event her opponents have held. It is standard fare in political races - “It’s something that good, organized campaigns do,’’ Coakley said - but it has irked her opponents, who are not following suit.

“That’s why people don’t like politics,’’ Khazei said in an interview. “She’s the attorney general, and she’s secretly videotaping other candidates? I mean, what’s that about?’’

Capuano also said he would not have his campaign workers do the same thing.

“If they did, I’d be the first person to shoot them,’’ he said. “I don’t need that. I’m not running against anyone. I’m running for office.’’

Capuano has been spending about three days each week - Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday - in Washington. It is a situation that both plays to a strength of his campaign (allowing him to portray himself as the one candidate with extensive experience on Capitol Hill), and highlights a major liability (it cuts into valuable time on the campaign trail.)

So last week, the campaign held two, hourlong “Tele-Town Halls,’’ where residents, either by calling into a number or answering an automated phone call, could ask Capuano questions and also offer to help his campaign. For about an hour Wednesday night, for example, Capuano, as if a radio talk show host, fielded calls from across Massachusetts on everything from government pensions to job creation.

“Even if you don’t agree with me on everything, I hope most of you walk away knowing I’m open to the discussion,’’ Capuano said toward the end of the event.

Capuano’s campaign is largely focused on Coakley, and making sure that over the next few weeks he will be seen as the clear alternative to her in the race. “The question is, can we get to enough people in enough time?’’ said one Capuano campaign aide, who asked for anonymity to discuss campaign strategy.

Capuano added, “I have low name recognition; it means I can grow. It doesn’t mean I will, but it means I can.’’

Pagliuca and Khazei, who have never run for office before, have had to build campaign organizations from scratch as they try to introduce themselves to voters.

Khazei, who is planning to launch a statewide canvass this week, has done it largely through campaign rallies on college campuses and by posting videos on YouTube. Pagliuca, pitching himself as a job-creator, has visited businesses across the state and spent heavily on TV ads.

“It’s pretty obvious we’re the jobs campaign,’’ said Will Keyser, communications director, adding that Pagliuca’s campaign will be “moving from an introductory phase into a stronger issues phase.’’

“We’re in a position where we feel like we’re growing,’’ he said.

Pagliuca has taken some ribbing for the ubiquity of his radio and TV ads, but the regular airtime has gotten his name out there. Early Friday morning, as Pagliuca and a cluster of supporters stood outside South Boston’s Java House with campaign signs, a Boston public schools bus rumbled past, carrying a full load of elementary school pupils.

A boy of maybe 8 or 9 appeared in an open window at the back of the bus and yelled: “Steve Pagliuca! Steve Pagliuca!’’ Pagliuca beamed. The boy hadn’t just read the name - he knew to pronounce it with a silent G, Pagliuca’s field director, Matt O’Malley, dutifully noted.

“All right! All right!’’ Pagliuca shouted.

Khazei’s challenge could be seen last week as he unveiled an education platform. In a field outside a pilot school in Dorchester, he spoke to only a dozen people, almost all of whom worked for the campaign.

Almost all: Coakley, of course, had one of her trackers there, recording every word.

“It shows me that something’s happening,’’ Khazei said later. “Why waste your money on me if I’m not serious?’’

Eric Moskowitz of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

Tonight’s debate
The four Democratic candidates for US Senate - US Representative Michael E. Capuano, Attorney General Martha Coakley, City Year cofounder Alan Khazei, and Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca - square off tonight in the first televised debate of the campaign. The debate, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, runs from 7 to 8. It will be televised on WCVB, WBZ, WHDH, NECN, and WGBH, and will be streamed live on Boston.com. It can also be heard on WBUR, WGBH-FM, and WBZ radio.