Kennedy endorsement comes at key time for Martha Coakley

Vicki Kennedy and other family members offered their endorsement to Martha Coakley in the race for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Earlier this week, a poll of likely voters found that the race is closer than expected.

By , Correspondent

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    Congressman Joseph Kennedy (r.) speaks at an event to formally endorse Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (2nd r.) in the race for late Sen. Edward Kennedy's Senate seat in Medford, Massachusetts, Thursday. Joseph Kennedy III and Victoria Reggie Kennedy look on.
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There was a brass band and a feeling of old-time politics as members of the Kennedy clan gathered Thursday to endorse Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in the special election to fill Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat.

The crowd mingled to “America the Beautiful” and “Let Freedom Ring” before the late senator’s family – including his wife, Vicki – took the stage with Ms. Coakley.

She might need the help of that key endorsement. A Jan. 4 Rasmussen poll of likely voters found Coakley leading her Republican challenger, state Sen. Scott Brown, by a smaller margin than expected – nine percentage points.

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In the poll, 50 percent favored Coakley and 41 percent chose Senator Brown. The general election is Jan. 19.

Coakley was strongly favored coming out of the Dec. 8 primary due to the heavily Democratic nature of Massachusetts: Blue voters outnumber their red counterparts 3 to 1 in the state.

But the Rasmussen poll – the only recent poll available – should be interpreted carefully, says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Rasmussen’s methodology, he says, includes very tight screening of respondents and can result in a Republican bias.

But that doesn’t mean the poll should be disregarded completely.

“What it says is that Coakley has to get her vote out,” Professor Berry says. “That’s the bottom line for this poll.”

While Massachusetts is a heavily Democratic state, the number of independent voters is greater than the sum of Democrats and Republicans. This is where Brown has found much of his unexpected support.

“He’s offered himself up as a protest candidate: ‘If you don’t like the way things are going in Washington, vote for me,’ ” says Dan Payne, a Massachusetts-based Democratic media consultant. “The winds are blowing against the Democrats right now.”

This means that the timing of Thursday’s endorsement, less than two weeks before the general election, is probably not a coincidence.

Senator Kennedy’s replacement is likely to be in office before Congress votes on the final version of the healthcare reform bill. That person could therefore be called upon to cast the all-important 60th vote. Brown has pledged to vote against the reform bill.

“The Kennedys are helping Coakley because they care about what Ted Kennedy called the cause of his life,” Mr. Payne says. “They don’t want to see the candidate from Massachusetts defeat healthcare reform.”

Indeed, much of Thursday’s endorsement was devoted to discussion of healthcare.

“My husband fought for healthcare reform for more than 40 years,” Vicki Kennedy said, after receiving a standing ovation from the crowd as she walked onstage. “Martha Coakley shares those critical beliefs.”

Coakley, who had initially said she would vote against healthcare reform if it contained restrictions on federal funding for abortion services, pledged her support.

“Priority No. 1 [will be] to pass and implement healthcare reform,” she promised.

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