Rep. Capuano eyes last-minute surge in primary election

With a week left in the special-election primary for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) seat, one candidate is trying to hold steady as another makes a last-minute push.

The window for Attorney General Martha Coakley’s challengers is closing fast, but Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) is making a late effort to keep it open.

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Coakley has held a clear double-digit lead in all public polling on the race, as her opponents seek to make themselves the No. 1 alternative. In that battle, Capuano looks to be gaining an edge.

Capuano, who has asserted himself as the most potent challenger to Coakley, this week got a boost from the support of former Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and The Boston Herald.

He said the timing of the announcements plays into his strategy.

“I’ve always been a very good closer, and I’ve always been the underdog,” Capuano said. “We set the table before closing, which is what we’ve been doing this entire campaign.”

His supporters hold out a modicum of hope that Kennedy’s nephew, former Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), or his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), could add their names to that list in the closing days, even if that appears unlikely at this point.

While Capuano has been feverishly working to catch Coakley, Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca has banked heavily on TV ads and robocalls to drive voters to the polls. Bringing up the rear in recent polling is Alan Khazei, the grassroots candidate who made a name for himself this weekend by unexpectedly grabbing The Boston Globe’s endorsement.

The winner of the Democratic primary will likely be the state’s next senator, giving Massachusetts’s Democratic leanings. The general special election is Jan. 19.

Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said she expects the race to feature a single-digit finish between Coakley, the state’s attorney general, and Capuano.

“Mike Capuano’s got the momentum at the end,” Marsh said. “The big question is, can he catch her, and does she have enough of a lead to hold on through Tuesday?”

Jim Gomes, a former staffer for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) who now heads the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark University, said Capuano needs to hope for a big mistake from his opponent.

Coakley has played it safe throughout her campaign, but two debates remained as of press time Tuesday.

“I don’t see any factors driving anti-Coakley voters to one candidate,” Gomes said. “This field for any of the three non-Coakley candidates must be very frustrating.”

So far, the main differences in the campaign have been gender (Coakley is the only woman) and name recognition (which favors the statewide official Coakley). In a short sprint of a campaign, she has held steady in the polls based on those two factors.

Coakley began the race with a massive advantage, and she has stayed rights around 40 percent, even as her opponents have increased their name ID and share of the vote.

If there’s one thing her opponents are banking on, it’s the low turnout that is characteristic of special elections. Supporters of other candidates generally think Coakley’s support is wide but shallow and that her voters might not turn out in tough conditions.

She and Capuano are thought to have the best ground organizations, but there remain questions about how good Coakley’s was to begin with, and how much Capuano was able to expand his in less than three months’ time.

Capuano admitted it’s an open question.

“We’re as statewide as we could be in a two-and-a-half-month campaign,” Capuano said. “I’m not going to pretend this is the best-oiled machine we’ve ever been a part of.”

Marsh said Capuano supporters Reps. James McGovern (D-Mass.) and Richard Neal (D-Mass.) should be key in driving turnout in their districts, but that still covers only about one-third of the state.

Capuano backers said they hope Dukakis’s backing will give him new credibility with voters elsewhere.

“Does [Dukakis’s support] change anything? I don’t know that it does,” said an operative backing Capuano. “But it creates this idea of momentum. Can he catch her? I don’t know.”

Capuano appeared with Patrick Kennedy at an event on Tuesday, but said he didn’t talk to Kennedy about an endorsement. Most agree that Capuano can’t count on the backing of the Kennedy family putting him over the top.

Speculation was that if he closed the gap enough, one of them might back him. But Capuano backer and Democratic consultant Phil Johnston said it won’t happen.

“I’ve talked to them; they won’t get involved,” Johnston said. “I think that the Dukakis endorsement was probably the last high-profile endorsement we’ll see.”

The candidates have been drawing subtle differences in their overwhelmingly liberal policies.

Pagliuca has been the most receptive to the president’s proposal for a troop increase in Afghanistan, though he has stopped short of supporting it. He also separated himself from Capuano and Coakley by saying he would support a healthcare bill that included restrictions on abortion funding.

Capuano this week tried a new tack on the Patriot Act, noting Coakley’s past comments suggesting the bill didn’t pose a significant threat to civil liberties. Coakley has since expressed reservations with the bill.

Capuano has resolutely tried to portray himself as the insider capable of getting things done, in the same manner Kennedy got them done for four decades.