BOSTON, Mass. -- Valerie LaCasse stood in sub-freezing cold Saturday evening in Middleboro awaiting the arrival of Senate candidate Scott Brown. She was one of hundreds who turned out in Everett Square for a chance to meet the Republican whose surging campaign has sent political shockwaves through Massachusetts.
LaCasse is a lifelong Democrat who voted for both Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy. It was Kennedy's death in August that created the vacancy to be filled by Tuesday's special election, but LaCasse won't be voting for Democrat Martha Coakley.
"I never warmed up to her," the Acushnet resident said of Coakley. "When she took that break at Christmas, that really irritated me -- that she wasn't out campaigning door-to-door like [Brown] was."
LaCasse is certainly not the only Democrat swept up in the phenomenal groundswell of support for the GOP state senator who was barely known outside his district six weeks ago. One elected Democratic official -- although required by the state party to support Coakley publicly -- privately admitted over the weekend that he will vote Tuesday for Brown, as will his wife.
Coakley was "mailing it in" on the senatorial campaign trail, the official said, relating how in his own election, he had gone door-to-door "seven days a week" soliciting votes. After winning the Dec. 8 Democratic primary, however, Coakley seemed to shift into neutral, expecting to coast easily to victory in the general election. She even took a six-day vacation from campaigning in December.
As polls increasingly point toward a victory for Brown, criticisms of the blunder-prone Coakley campaign are being heard from many quarters. Friday in Boston's North End, while Rudy Giuliani was in town to campaign for Brown, longtime Boston newspaper columnist Mike Barnicle stood on Hanover Street and shook his head when asked about Coakley.
"I've never seen a worse campaign for a Democrat," said Barnicle, a liberal who is a regular commentator on MSNBC. "It's an election, not a coronation."
Coakley's aloof personality, disastrous gaffes and strategic miscalculations may become a convenient explanation if, as many Massachusetts political observers now expect, the Democrat loses Tuesday. If her defeat can be explained in strictly tactical terms -- a bad campaign by a clueless candidate -- then liberals can argue that the election is neither a negative referendum on the first year of the Obama administration nor a harbinger of dismal Democratic prospects in the November mid-terms.
Such a narrow interpretation of this Massachusetts election -- "The Scott Heard 'Round the World," as Brown's supporters like to say -- ignores the extent to which the Republican has emphasized conservative stances on key issues, including health care, economic policy and national security.
A lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, Brown has relentlessly criticized the Obama administration's decision to grant civilian trials to accused foreign terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Giuliani pounded that theme Friday while campaigning with Brown here, slamming Coakley for her assertion during a debate last week that terrorists were "gone" from Afghanistan. "What the heck does she think we're doing there?" the former New York mayor said.
Brown has also been a consistent critic of the economic stimulus bill that President Obama pushed through Congress last year. "The fact is the stimulus has not worked. Not one new job has been created in Massachusetts, or anywhere in the nation," Brown said in one of his earliest campaign statements. "Our country can't afford any more stimulus spending that adds to our deficit without adding to employment."
More than anything else, however, it is Brown's opposition to the Democrats' pending health-care legislation that turned the Massachusetts election into a crusade for conservatives nationwide. The Republican has vowed to be the "41st vote" against the bill, preventing Senate Democrats from maintaining the filibuster-proof supermajority needed for final approval.
While it has been speculated that Democrats may find some procedural means of bypassing that obstacle, to do so would be to ignore the clear message of this campaign. If opposition to the administration's health-care policy can spur the election of a Republican in one of the nation's most liberal states, Brown's election would be an emphatic "no" in what is tantamount to a referendum on Obama's first year in office.
The energy and enthusiasm of Brown's campaign here in recent days is unprecedented for any Republican candidate in Massachusetts, longtime residents say. Among the crowd who waited in the cold Saturday evening in Middleboro for the arrival of Brown's "Bold New Leadership" tour bus was Dick Glidden, a Navy veteran of World War II.
"In all my years," said the 85-year-old local, "I've never seen anything like this."