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Running scared, running hard

Democrats, GOP both driven by idea that Brown could win

By Matt Viser and Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 17, 2010

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Mike Urbonas was waving blue-and-red campaign signs for Democrat Martha Coakley yesterday in downtown Melrose, hoping to give the campaign a jolt and help derail her surging Republican opponent, Scott Brown.

“It just didn’t need to be this close,’’ Urbonas, a 46-year-old from Wakefield, said somewhat wistfully.

Tommy White, a 23-year-old Brown supporter from Newton, could hardly believe it, either.

“Scrape and claw for a few more days, and hopefully we can get this,’’ said White, who held a Brown sign in Quincy wearing stars-and-stripes sweat pants.

The divergent emotions illustrate how a once-sleepy contest for US Senate has become, in the final weekend of the race, unimaginably close, with Coakley and her party doing everything they can to hold on to a reliably Democratic seat. As both candidates barnstormed Eastern Massachusetts yesterday, each was forced to adapt to a new reality: Coakley’s campaign sought to rally its base, while Brown rode the fervent energy of supporters, giddy at the prospect of a monumental upset.

“In the past 24 hours, the lights have come on,’’ Ellen Malcolm, founder of Emily’s List, which supports women candidates who back abortion rights, said while campaigning with Coakley in Melrose. “Democrats have woken up.’’

On both sides, the stakes were abundantly clear: a victory for Brown would reshape Massachusetts politics and potentially quash Democratic-led efforts to remake health care.

Democrats are so nervous about losing the seat once held by Edward M. Kennedy that President Obama, who has a lot riding on Tuesday’s outcome, will campaign for Coakley this afternoon at Northeastern University’s Cabot Center. Doors to the event, which is free to the public, open at 1 p.m., and Obama is scheduled to take the stage two hours later.

Yesterday, Coakley visited union halls in Boston, a deli in Lynn, and a power company in Gloucester, among other stops north of the city. She started the day with Vicki Kennedy, Kennedy’s widow, at the IBEW hall in Dorchester, before a cheering crowd of union members.

“We have a fight on our hands,’’ Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said as he delivered a stemwinder at full voice. “There’s nothing less than the future of the labor movement at stake in this election.’’

In the afternoon, Coakley supporters gathered nervously in Gloucester.

“The reason I’m here is the polls scared me to death,’’ Sage Walcott, a 69-year-old creative writing professor, said as he hoisted a Coakley sign before the rally. “I can’t imagine Brown replacing Kennedy. It’s an atrocious idea.’’

At Michael’s Haborside bar in Newburyport, a crowd of supporters burst into frequent chants and applause as Coakley spoke. Sandra Thaxter, 66, of Newburyport, said she wouldn’t have turned out had the race not grown tight.

“I think we all thought she was a shoo-in,’’ she said.

In an indication of Coakley’s challenge, a couple of voters at her stop in Lynn said they planned to vote for Brown because they saw him as a change agent - a theme that has been a core message for Democrats in recent election cycles.

“His approach is fresh, clean, and new,’’ said George Gambale, an 80-year-old from East Boston who had just polished off a bowl of beef stew at Brothers Deli. “She’s just not the candidate.’’

Brown moved yesterday with a bounce in his step, descending from his “Bold New Leadership’’ bus to screaming crowds that numbered well into the hundreds at stops in Quincy, Plymouth, and Hyannis. People waved signs that said “The People’s Seat’’ and “The Scott Heard ‘Round the World,’’ pressing close to shake Brown’s hand and clap him on the back.

In the morning, as he moved from downtown Quincy toward a bunting-and-flag-festooned stage in front of the Crane Library, he greeted people two at a time, shaking with both hands at once. Beyond talk of taxes, spending, and national security, his most common refrain was, “I’ve got plenty of time. Just be patient - I’ll try to say hi to everybody!’’

Frank McCauley, a former Quincy mayor, marveled at the scene: “I’ve never seen anything like this before.’’ In Plymouth, state Representative Vinny deMacedo said the same thing.

Even as the candidates shook hands, smiled for cameras, and displayed sunny dispositions, they and their campaigns traded allegations and barbs. Brown, campaigning in Plymouth, blasted Coakley and her allies for their attacks. “This is the worst campaign in Massachusetts in the history of - since we’ve been doing politics - and shame on Martha,’’ he said. Coakley insisted she had run a “very positive campaign,’’ and she accused Brown and his supporters of beginning the negativity by distorting her record.

Coakley sought to highlight their differences on health care by noting that Brown does not pay for health insurance for his campaign workers, who are contractors, while she does.

“We already knew that Scott Brown didn’t want to make health insurance more affordable for Massachusetts families and businesses,’’ Coakley said. “Now we learn that he won’t even make health insurance available for his own staff.’’

Brown initially told the Globe between campaign appearances yesterday morning, “I don’t have any idea what she’s talking about.’’ But at the next stop, he said his 12 workers were short-term contractors who have their own health plans and that they’re happy with the arrangement.

Later yesterday afternoon, Brown’s campaign announced it would file a criminal complaint against the Massachusetts Democratic Party for sending out a campaign flier that accused Brown of wanting hospitals to turn away “all’’ rape victims, a major misrepresentation of his position. The front of the mailer has photos of dozens of women and says, “1,736 women were raped in Massachusetts in 2008. Scott Brown wants hospitals to turn them all away.’’

At issue is an unsuccessful legislative amendment in 2005 that Brown sponsored, which would have allowed hospital employees to deny rape victims an emergency contraceptive on religious grounds. The facility would have had to have someone else available to administer the contraceptive, or refer the victim to another facility at no additional cost. The amendment was attached to a bill that he ultimately voted for, which required emergency rooms to provide the contraceptives to rape victims.

Globe correspondent Jeannie Nuss contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.