His agenda at risk, President Barack Obama fought on Sunday to save a sinking Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and the critical 60th vote needed for his health care plan while the White House and congressional Democrats scrambled to pass the legislation quickly in case of a loss.
"Understand what's at stake here Massachusetts. It's whether we're going forward or going backwards," the president said, the urgency clear in his voice during a rally for embattled nominee Martha Coakley as he tried to energize his dispirited base in this Democratic stronghold. "If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election."
The president also made a direct appeal to independents who are trending away from the Democrat and sought to court voters angry over Wall Street abuses, high unemployment and growing spending. He assailed GOP candidate Scott Brown as just another typical Republican who sides with special interests instead of average Americans.
"Martha's opponent already is walking in lockstep with Washington Republicans," Obama said, criticizing Brown for opposing the president's proposed tax on Wall Street. "She's got your back, her opponent's got Wall Street's back. Bankers don't need another vote in the United States Senate. They've got plenty. Where's yours?"
The unexpectedly tight race for the seat held so long by Edward M. Kennedy, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3-to-1, reflects a nasty antiestablishment environment that threatens Obama's support in Congress now and heading into this fall's elections.
Brown, a little-known state senator, has tapped into voter anger and anxiety over federal spending to pull even with Democrat Martha Coakley, the state's attorney general. He says he would vote against Obama's health care bill, robbing Democrats of the 60-vote majority needed to prevent Republicans from blocking it.
In Washington, White House aides and Democratic lawmakers frantically hashed out plans to save health care in case of a Brown upset. The likeliest scenario emerging would require House Democrats to accept a bill the Senate passed last month, despite their objections to several parts. Obama could sign it into law without another Senate vote needed. House leaders would urge the Senate to make changes later under a complex plan the would require only a simple majority.
U.S. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky portrayed the Massachusetts contest as a national referendum on the health care measure. "If it's unpopular in Massachusetts, it's unpopular everywhere. The American people don't want us to pass this bill," McConnell said on "Fox News Sunday."
He also said whoever wins should be sworn in promptly.
State officials say it could take more than two weeks to certify the election results, maybe enough time for Democrats to push Obama's signature legislation through Congress before Brown could take office. Sen. Paul G. Kirk Jr., the interim appointee to Kennedy's seat, says he will vote for the bill if given the chance.
Tuesday's special election will be held a day shy of the one-year anniversary of Obama's swearing-in. Turnout, notoriously low in special elections, will be critical.
Democrats and Republicans worked feverishly to get voters out, with Obama's campaign apparatus, Organizing for America, descending on the state. Democrats say some 3,500 volunteers made 575,000 voter contacts on Saturday alone.
Coakley and Brown made their own personal appeals at events across the state.
No matter who wins, the shockingly close contest in the Democratic of states — coupled with defeats last fall in New Jersey and Virginia governor races — is likely to give a lasting scare in Democrats, raise questions about Obama's prowess and test his party's resolve about his agenda, particularly health care.
The presidential visit was extraordinary and showed how much was on the line for Obama and the Democratic-run Congress.
It was a sensitive time for Obama to leave Washington and campaign for a seat that his party has held for more than a half-century. Health care negotiations with Congress are at their most critical stage, and Obama has focused on helping Haiti recovery from Tuesday's devastating earthquake.
Obama sought to fire up rank-and-file Democrats who are dispirited just one year after he took office. In a race this tight, Democrats need their loyalists — particularly blue-collar and minority voters who might not be motivated — to show up at the polls.
But the president's popularity isn't what it was when he took office on Jan. 20, 2009.
Polls now show Obama's job approval hovering around 50 percent or below it, very different from where it was a year ago. In Massachusetts, a Suffolk University poll released Thursday showed that only 48 percent approve of Obama's performance.
Obama's ability to persuade voters to back Democrats if he's not on the ballot is in question. In November, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and Democrat Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee to replace Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia, both lost even though Obama campaigned hard for them.
Before the afternoon rally at Northeastern University with Obama, Coakley visited Hyannis, home of the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod, and appeared with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino at a morning prayer service in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood for victims of the Haiti earthquake.
"A lot of people don't want Barack Obama to succeed, and that's who we're fighting against. They don't want him to be a president that leads this country. They want him to be a president who fails," said Menino told a largely black congregation.
In an interview, Coakley rejected the suggestion that the closeness of the race reflected a dissatisfaction with Obama's agenda.
"It's a risk to draw ... those broad conclusions. I don't think it's necessarily a referendum on anything bigger than what Massachusetts voters want," she said.
Brown tried to counter Obama's international celebrity with his own local starpower, appearing in Worcester, the state's second-largest city, with former Boston College football star Doug Flutie and Curt Schilling, who in 2004 pitched the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years.
The Republican also got help from a distance. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who spends much of the winter in California, sent out an e-mail asking supporters to make calls on Brown's behalf. Former Bush White House adviser Karl Rove used his Twitter account to link to a phone-banking site.
In the closing hours of the campaign, Democrats pressed to make the case that Brown is not who he claims to be. They cast him as a far-right conservative funded by "tea party" supporters and they highlighted a TV interview from 2008 in which Brown seems to suggests that Obama may have been born out of wedlock. Brown's campaign said the Republican doesn't believe that.