Image: Martha Coakley
Gretchen Ertl  /  AP
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat left empty by the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
updated 1/15/2010 3:42:14 PM ET 2010-01-15T20:42:14

President Barack Obama and the family of Edward M. Kennedy pushed Thursday to keep a Democrat in the late senator's seat and protect a 60th vote needed to pass the health care bill that would be Kennedy's legacy.

The stepped-up involvement of two Democratic powerhouses reflected the degree to which Obama's party worried about a contest that just a week ago looked like a lock for Democrat Martha Coakley.

Stopping short of a visit to the state, Obama made his first foray into the race, asking his political backers in an e-mailed video to support Coakley in what's become a competitive race against Republican Scott Brown.

Republicans claim they have the momentum closing in on Tuesday's special election, and Democrats fear a loss could not only cost them the health care bill but the rest of the president's legislative agenda heading into critical midterm elections this fall. Brown has said that if elected, he would provide the 41st vote needed to effectively kill the health care bill.

"They believe that by defeating Martha, and replacing Ted Kennedy with her Republican opponent, they'll be in a position to tie up the Senate and prevent a vote on health insurance reform, financial reform and other issues so important to working families in Massachusetts and the nation," Obama said. "The outcome of these fights will probably rest on one vote in the Senate."

Senate Democrats also invoked their late colleague, releasing a video tribute to his nearly 47-year career and his pursuit of a health care overhaul.

The senator's widow, Vicki Kennedy, taped a last-minute television ad on behalf of Coakley. Earlier this week, Kennedy made a fundraising appeal that brought in more than $500,000.

The senator's son Edward Jr. was expected to make his own plea, and Coakley aides would not rule out more appearances by the two Kennedys before Tuesday's election.

The burst of activity came a week after Vicki Kennedy staged what many had expected to be her only public involvement in the campaign, a glitzy endorsement event on behalf of Coakley.

Since then, Brown has waged an aggressive campaign for the seat, and national partisans of all stripes poured into the state after he was widely seen as beating Coakley in their final debate on Monday.

"The Kennedys don't want to be humiliated and lose the election," said Boston College political science professor Marc Landy. "What does it say about the 'Kennedy legacy' if they can't elect a Democrat after he's gone and the issue is health care — not soybeans — but health care?"

Aides say Vicki Kennedy's heightened involvement is simply an extension of the family's long tradition of helping its political allies.

Yet her support for Coakley comes after some family members were privately angered by Coakley's early maneuvering to position herself for the race while Kennedy was still alive. Coakley tapped a secret federal bank account to poll her Senate prospects in November 2008, when Obama was said to be considering Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state and while Kennedy was being treated for terminal brain cancer.

Last year, as the senator's condition deteriorated, Coakley, now Massachusetts' attorney general, used her state campaign committee to buy computers, campaign posters and Internet addresses and hire staffers she then transferred to her Senate campaign committee five days after Kennedy's funeral.

Image: Scott Brown
Josh Reynolds  /  AP
Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown is running to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Vicki Kennedy and Edward Kennedy Jr. withheld endorsing any of the candidates in the four-way Democratic primary, but Vicki Kennedy called Coakley after she won and offered her support in the general election.

Brown himself has cited the Kennedy legacy during his campaign. His first TV ad featured him calling for a "JFK-style" across-the-board tax cut. It showed black-and-white tape of President John F. Kennedy speaking on the subject, before transitioning to a color picture of Brown completing the remarks.

Republicans rallied around Brown after Monday's debate moderator, CNN political analyst David Gergen, asked him if he planned to sit in "Teddy Kennedy's seat" and vote against the health care bill.

"With all due respect, it's not the Kennedy seat. And it's not the Democrats' seat. It's the people's seat," Brown replied.

The third candidate in the race, independent Joseph L. Kennedy, has barely registered in campaign polls but has the potential to confuse voters who may mistakenly believe he is related to the famed political family.

The involvement of Obama and the Kennedys presages other high-profile endorsements in the race's waning days.

Former President Bill Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani planned Massachusetts visits Friday to campaign for Coakley and Brown, respectively. Massachusetts Democrats continued to buzz about the possibility of a weekend visit by Obama or Vice President Joe Biden, although the White House has repeatedly said the president has no travel plans.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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