NEEDHAM, Mass. -- Karen Wright stood behind the counter at Mighty Subs and explained why she plans to vote for Republican Scott Brown in Tuesday's special election.
"He loves our chicken parm," Wright said, referring to an Italian-style parmesan chicken sandwich that is a house specialty at the diner near Brown's Senate campaign headquarters here.
Brown is a regular at Mighty Subs, which boasts of its oversized sandwiches, "Our Small Is Their Large." Wright says of the three-term state senator, "He's a nice guy, very down-to-earth."
Brown's nice-guy likeability may be his strongest advantage in the race to fill the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy in a state where registered Democrats outnumber GOP voters three-to-one. His affable, easygoing manner offers a stark contrast to his opponent, state attorney general Martha Coakley, whose chief argument for her own election seems to be that Brown is a Republican.
Pouring $3 million into a wall-to-wall advertising blitz branding Brown a "lockstep" Republican, Coakley's commercial inspired a parody response on Michael Graham's popular Boston talk-radio program: "Scott Brown: So Republican, he's even registered as a Republican."
While most media have focused on Brown's surging momentum -- he raised $1.3 million in a Monday "money bomb" and has moved ahead in the latest poll -- perhaps the bigger story is Coakley's complete flop as a candidate.
Massachusetts likes its liberals, but it likes them with a common touch that Coakley utterly lacks. The career prosecutor's aloof style may explain why a young grocery clerk, asked what reactions she'd heard about the Senate campaign, responded: "I don't know much about the election myself. I just know my parents hate Martha Coakley."
Brown has spent the weeks since the Dec. 8 primary driving across the state and shaking hands with voters, while Coakley seemed to be awaiting her coronation. Only after she fared badly in a televised debate earlier this week (a "shockingly poor debate performance," as Brown spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom described it) did Coakley launch her massive tsunami of negative ads. Brown responded in nice-guy mode with his own TV spot showing him in his kitchen as he described the Democrat as part of a "political machine."
Coakley's lack of charisma is not her only liability, however. The latest poll by Suffolk University for Boston's WHDH-TV shows that opposition to the pending national health-care legislation is a major source of Brown's support among independent voters. And, despite the enormous Democratic advantage in registration, a majority of Massachusetts voters are not registered as either Democrats or Republicans. The decisive influence of these unaffiliated "swing" voters explains much of the strategy for both the Coakley and Brown campaigns.
A lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard married to a popular local TV personality, Brown is portrayed in his campaign ads as a hard-working family man who speaks the language of "common sense." The Coakley campaign, once it was forced to take notice of the Republican's gathering strength, has tried to depict him as an ideological extremist -- a "far-right tea-bagger," as Sen. Chuck Schumer called Brown in a fundraising e-mail earlier this week.
Schumer's pejorative reference to Tea Party protesters may generate contributions from panic-struck Democratic donors, but support from the grassroots movement can scarcely be considered a liability, in light of recent polls showing the Tea Party more popular than either Republicans or Democrats.
Nevertheless, liberals have sought to trip up Brown on that very issue. A Boston Globe article reported the Republican had claimed to be "unfamiliar" with the Tea Party movement, which prompted a question during the candidate's press conference yesterday at Boston's Parker House hotel. Donning a pair of reading glasses, Brown recited a transcript of an earlier exchange the Globe had clearly misrepresented. What he had been "unfamiliar" with was a reporter's assertion that the Tea Party movement was trying to "take over the country." He demurred when asked whether he was "distancing" himself from the movement.
"This is a big tent campaign," the candidate responded, deftly dodging an attempt to pigeonhole him as a tool of the radical right. "I'm not into labels."
Back at his Needham headquarters yesterday afternoon, Brown's staff was swamped with volunteers offering to work in the campaign's telephone call center. One local Republican activist recounted Coakley's stumbles that had surrendered the momentum to Brown's surge and observed, "Democrats here are soft. They've never had to fight. When you're soft, you make mistakes."
It remains to be seen whether Coakley has blundered badly enough to put a Republican in a seat held for more than four decades by Ted Kennedy. If Brown pulls out an upset Tuesday, his election will be a notable exception to Leo Durocher's maxim that nice guys finish last.
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