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Brian McGrory

Race is in a spinout

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / January 15, 2010

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Martha Coakley made a jaw-dropping declaration earlier this week at the only live televised debate in Boston that she has deigned to do. She said, and I quote, “I’ve traveled the state and met tremendous people.’’

If she did, it was under the cover of darkness, with an assumed name.

Because if she had really traveled the state, if she had taken the time to meet voters, Coakley wouldn’t be in the position she finds herself in now, heading into the final weekend of this special election campaign in a perilously close race against a GOP state legislator nobody had heard of a mere six months ago.

Back in December, Coakley beat her closest opponent by 19 points in a primary in which she got stronger by the day. She strolled into the general election with high name recognition, strong favorability ratings, and as the Democratic candidate in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. It looked as if it would be impossible to lose.

So what did she do? Apparently, she’s tried to accomplish the impossible.

Literally, she all but vanished. She refused to debate on TV unless it was exactly on her terms. She went days without venturing out in public. When she did appear, it was typically to accept endorsements from elected officials or union heads in front of supportive crowds. She may have gone the first month of the campaign without ever meeting an honest-to-goodness rank-and-file undecided resident.

Campaigns are an opportunity for candidates to hear from the public they want to represent, but Coakley doesn’t seem to believe this is necessary. At a rare meet-and-greet with voters Wednesday, she worked a room of a couple of hundred senior citizens in Dorchester in under 10 minutes. Then she turned her back on the crowd as she spoke to reporters, leaving the seniors to awkwardly applaud remarks they weren’t meant to hear.

As she quickly made her way to the exits, it took an outreach worker at the senior center to insist that she address the crowd, which she did, and well.

Voters are smart. They want their next senator to take on all comers, to be aggressive and passionate in pursuit of such a critical office at a singular time. In Coakley, they see someone who hasn’t earned their support. Worse, they see someone who assumed she’d get it.

Scott Brown may not share the political values of most of the state and may lack the experience for the US Senate. And, let’s be honest, his nights probably aren’t tied up with Mensa meetings. But he’s out there hustling, meeting, asking, and convincing. People respect that, a lot.

With polls tightening, the pressure is starting to show on Coakley. A normally shrewd and polite Coakley adviser got physical with a reporter trying to approach the candidate on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk (message: She can’t handle questions). Coakley later made reference to “Scott Brown stalkers’’ (new message: She rattles easily).

Coakley was on the telephone yesterday putting some impressive spin on a white-knuckles situation. She repeated her assertion that the short duration of a special election meant that daily meet-and-greets with voters wouldn’t work. She also said the sudden closeness would help her get supporters to the polls in an election in which turnout is critical.

“It’s energized a lot of people in the state who thought it might have been a cakewalk,’’ she said.

Prominent Democrats in Boston are privately seething at the candidate and her campaign. First and foremost, they see the immediate impact defeat could have on the health care overhaul. Beyond that, they fret about the seismic impact a Republican victory in Massachusetts would have on Obama’s national standing. And they are nearly despondent about what a defeat would mean to Ted Kennedy’s legacy and memory.

We’re at an amazing point right now in which nobody knows what will happen Tuesday. And it’s not because of anything Coakley did, but because of everything she didn’t.

McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.