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Yvonne Abraham

Stumbling, but running

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / October 14, 2010

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TOPSFIELD — Attorney General Martha Coakley was picking her way through the harried throngs at the Topsfield Fair on Sunday afternoon, trying to convince people she isn’t the person they may have thought she was.

She was showing testy, plush-toy-laden parents that she doesn’t take a single vote for granted, and convincing diners pounding down bowls of bad fries that she will work to keep the job she loves.

It was painful to watch at times.

“Can I just say ‘Hi?’ ’’ she said to one woman, waiting in line with her kids for a ride. “I’m your attorney general, Martha Coakley.’’

Coakley then began the sell. Not of herself, but of the attractions.

“There’s something for everybody here. Have you found something you like? There’s kettle corn . . . . Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.’’

And then, almost as an afterthought: “I’d love to have your vote.’’

Coakley came alive when a couple of voters raised issues. She talked at length with an elderly man about his troubled mortgage. “I’m just outraged at this,’’ she said, urging him to call her office.

But mostly, she is one of the least natural retail politicians I have ever seen. Several times, I resisted an overwhelming urge to step in and remind her to mention her reelection campaign, to keep the fizzling small-talk going.

Coakley is trying to overcome not just her shortcomings on the campaign trail, but also the fact that she will always be the Democrat who lost Ted Kennedy’s US Senate seat, the politician caught off guard by Republican Scott Brown and his national machine.

She was pilloried locally and nationally for taking victory for granted (she had plenty of company), and for underestimating voters’ anger. They’re still angry, some Brown supporters reserving an especially disturbing venom for the candidate he beat. (Doubters: See the comments beneath this column online.)

But since January, she has handled herself with a grace few in her situation could muster. She poked fun at herself at the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. And she threw herself back into her work, winning tens of millions from financial firm Morgan Stanley for its role in the subprime mortgage crisis, opposing a National Grid rate hike, and successfully challenging the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court.

And she’s been out there since February, outside supermarkets, doing door-knocks, at fairs and parades.

“If people’s perceptions were negative, they didn’t see the real me, and it’s important that they do,’’ she said in an interview. “I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with campaigning. I don’t always get a great response, but I enjoy it.’’

The struggle to connect easily with ordinary people made Coakley a middling, then a failed Senate candidate. It might have made her a middling senator, too. Kennedy’s legendary success lay in his ability to make every constituent — and every colleague — feel special.

But I couldn’t care less about that stuff when it comes to an attorney general. What I want is someone like the centered and competent woman I saw in an NECN debate last week, in which Coakley calmly trounced Republican Jim McKenna.

McKenna, a write-in candidate who seems supremely underqualified for the state’s top law enforcement job, struggled to define his position on the death penalty, and on just about every issue raised. He repeatedly refused to say where he stands on same-sex marriage, weaseling out of moderator Jim Braude’s every effort to pin him down.

It’s hard to imagine voters choosing somebody like him over Coakley. But as the attorney general knows, anything can happen. In her own reserved way, she is taking no chances.

Near the end of her trip Sunday, she stopped for a free blood pressure test.

“It’s a bit high,’’ the nurse told her. “Maybe it’s too much coffee.’’

“No, it’s the excitement of the campaign,’’ Coakley said with a wink.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.