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Joan Vennochi

How about a Brown-Coakley rematch?

AG could be the Democrat's best bet in Senate race

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / June 12, 2011

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EVERYONE loves a rematch. Sox-Yankees. Celtics-Lakers.

How about Brown-Coakley? That would be high political drama.

Everyone knows the basic Coakley narrative: The Massachusetts AG waged a terrible campaign against Republican Scott Brown, a likable hunk with a great pickup truck and an even greater voter pick-up line. He was running for “the people’s seat,’’ while Coakley ran a dull quest for Ted Kennedy’s seat. Brown beat her in a now-legendary special election, and the rest is history, including Coakley’s disdain for shaking hands in the cold.

The 100,000 votes that separated them are routinely cast as a humiliating drubbing from which she can never recover.

But a recent survey by the Democratic polling company Public Policy Polling casts doubt on that pat conclusion.

Brown is popular and comfortably ahead of any potential Democratic rival. But Coakley comes closest to giving him a real fight in 2012. According to this poll, which surveyed 957 Massachusetts voters from June 2 to 5, Brown beats Coakley 49 to 40 percent, with 10 percent undecided. She’s not in the race, but she’s the most likable and well-known Democrat in the survey.

Yet, as local Democrats bemoan the low wattage of the current field, it’s funny who gets written off as damaged goods and who doesn’t. Warren Tolman — a former state senator who ran for lieutenant governor on a losing Democratic ticket and then went on to lose a 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary bid — is touted by some as a strong Brown challenger. Republican Charlie Baker ran a lackluster gubernatorial campaign that is considered a warm-up for another run.

Washington Democrats are also in the hunt for a star. Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor beloved by Cambridge liberals, may fit their bill, partly because Senate Republicans are blocking her appointment as head of a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren would have some catching up to do; she gets 32 percent of the vote against Brown and most voters don’t know she is.

Coakley is not interested in a rematch, according to spokesman Corey Welford. But the polling results are welcome, he said, given the conventional wisdom that she was “politically dead.’’

After losing to Brown, Coakley was supposed to know her place: political Siberia. But she didn’t accept the destination. After angering Democrats by losing to Brown, she irked them further by running for reelection.

She works hard at the AG’s job. In recent months, Coakley took on four major health insurers, saying they should not compensate their boards of directors; launched high-profile corruption investigations into the probation department and the Middlesex sheriff’s office; is leading efforts to make human trafficking a crime; and reached a $1 million settlement with National Grid after challenging their response to a December storm. She also challenged the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and ultimately President Obama and the Justice Department withdrew their defense of it.

Brown made headlines this year when he revealed in an autobiography that he was sexually abused as a young boy and then refused to identify his abuser. That also matches up in an interesting way against Coakley’s record as a prosecutor who courageously took on controversial child abuse cases.

The Republican senator is a formidable opponent — a celebrity politician with more than $8 million in the bank. But a few clouds are drifting into his generally sunny political skies. Last month, he said he had seen photos of Osama bin Laden after the terrorist leader was shot and suggested the viewing was part of an official briefing. His account turned out not to be true and he looked silly when he later admitted that he was fooled by phony Internet photos.

His popularity is also tied to a moderate image, which he maintains through a tiresome fan dance. He would not extend unemployment benefits until the Bush tax cuts for the rich were renewed. Planned Parenthood was unsure whether he would vote to fund the organization. He toyed with signing onto Medicare cuts before he fully understood the pressure back home to oppose them.

In 2012, a presidential election year, there’s room for a Comeback Kid to maneuver.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.