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Brown outpolls Kerry, Obama

Most popular official in survey; For incumbents, message is mixed

By Matt Viser and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / June 28, 2010

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US Senator Scott Brown, who only months ago was a little-known figure even within the tiny band of Republicans in the state Senate, not only catapulted to national stature with his upset US Senate victory, but is today the most popular officeholder in Massachusetts, according to a Boston Globe poll.

After less than five months in Washington, Brown outpolls such Democratic stalwarts as President Obama and US Senator John F. Kerry in popularity, the poll indicates. He gets high marks not only from Republicans, but even a plurality of Democrats views him favorably.

The support for Brown, whose victory became a symbol of voter anger, is consistent with widespread sentiment that incumbents in Massachusetts and Washington “need to be replaced with a new crop of leaders.’’ That statement was supported by 50 percent of those polled, while 28 percent said they trust the incumbents.

Yet there’s one surprising consolation for Bay State Democrats who hope to defuse the voter backlash. When asked whether they will vote for a Democrat or Republican in their own congressional district in November, 42 percent of likely voters say they will vote for the Democrat and 27 percent will vote Republican.

While those polled tend to favor the nine Democratic incumbents running to keep their US House seats in November, Republicans can take hope in the state’s only contest for an open seat, being vacated by Democrat William Delahunt. Voters in the Southeastern and Cape and Islands communities that make up the district are evenly divided on whether they will vote for a Republican or Democrat.

The survey of 558 adults in Massachusetts, including 497 likely voters, was taken June 17-23 by the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center.

Brown’s backers can be heartened by the depth of his support.

Asked their opinion of Brown, 55 percent of those polled said they view him favorably, only 18 percent unfavorably. His rating among Republicans is 79 percent favorable, 3 percent unfavorable. And 55 percent of independents — the majority of the state’s voters — say they like him, while only 11 percent have an unfavorable opinion. The poll has a margin of error of 4.2 percent.

Despite the fact that his election in January was a crushing blow to both the state and national Democratic party, 41 percent of Democrats say they view Brown favorably, and 32 percent, unfavorably.

In contrast, Kerry was viewed favorably by 52 percent of those polled and unfavorably by 37 percent of the respondents. And in a sign that Obama is a polarizing figure even in Massachusetts, 54 percent of the respondents view him favorably and 41 percent unfavorably, according to the polling data.

Those findings could be unsettling news for Democratic party leaders, who very much want to defeat Brown in 2012 when he has to run for a full six-year term, and recapture the seat that Senator Edward M. Kennedy held for nearly 47 years. With his ability to tap into a huge national conservative network of donors, Brown is accumulating a huge war chest and making the most of his rock star status since his victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley in the Jan. 19 special election.

Few Democrats seem to have the resources or stature to challenge Brown, although they have been watching his actions closely and waiting to pounce on each and every misstep. Some Democrats are strongly urging Vicki Kennedy, the senator’s widow, to consider a run for the seat. They see her as the best chance of defeating Brown. Kennedy’s frequent appearances at political venues in Massachusetts have prompted speculation she may run, but close associates insist that Kennedy is still very much in mourning and is not thinking of a political campaign.

Bay State voters were split evenly on Coakley, who had been highly popular in the state for years until her defeat by Brown; 42 percent viewed her favorably and the same percentage unfavorably.

Yet only about one-fourth of Massachusetts residents polled said they support the Tea Party movement, which backed Brown. Among Tea Party supporters, 71 percent said they approve of the job Brown is doing.

In Washington, Brown has sought to walk a fine line, appealing to different sides on different issues. Republicans have used him to recruit potential congressional candidates around the country. Democrats have targeted him as a potential swing vote, giving him an outsized role for the junior member of the Senate.

“He said he was going to be an independent person,’’ said Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican. “He understands that in order to get things done, you have to work on both sides. And he’s done that exceptionally well. He’s been very consistent on what he campaigned on, and the kind of senator he said he would be.’’

He voted against the national health care overhaul bill, a vote that followed party lines. In the Globe poll, 45 percent of those surveyed said they felt the overhaul law would be generally good for the country, while 39 percent said it would be generally bad.

Some of Brown’s votes have infuriated his former supporters, chief among them his willingness to join Democrats in advancing Obama’s plan to overhaul the financial system. Just after being sworn into office in February, Brown also sided with Democrats on a jobs bill, which spurred criticism from conservatives.

But others say Brown is doing what he promised in the campaign.

“I think the guy has done what he said he would,’’ said Michael T. Columbo, a 40-year-old registered independent and Dedham resident who voted for Brown in the special US Senate election and who was among those polled. Columbo, a full time engineering student, said he is leaning increasingly to the Libertarian Party in recent years and has a dim view of the Tea Party.

“Having a good Republican there is good for the state. I think . . .. having people voting for all Democrats is stupid. If Brown keeps going the way he is going, I will vote for him again.’’

Brown has joined Republicans in a bid to limit federal regulation of greenhouse gases, and he voted against repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ law that bars gays from serving openly in the military. Recently, he stymied Democrats by blocking a package that would have extended unemployment and boosted Medicaid funding for states, keeping the measure from coming up to a vote.

The Globe reported last month that Brown had voted 84 percent of the time with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a record similar to his support of Republican leadership during his time as a state legislator.

“I think he’s gotten off to a very fast start here,’’ Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, said in an interview. “It’s really impressive that someone who hasn’t been in the vortex of this place, to really fit right in very quickly and be a player. And he is.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.