Vacation blunder looms large but didn't sink Coakley

But it is hardly the whole story.

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With all kinds of blame being shoved on Coakley’s shoulders, her campaign fought back by saying it warned national Democrats about the peril that lay ahead.

Its claim is undercut, though, by the fact that Coakley took a weeklong vacation between the primary, Dec. 8, and the general election on Tuesday.

Vacations during campaigns are generally seen as a no-no, even if just for appearance, before an election. In Coakley’s case, she came back and found herself in a completely different race, and she never recovered.

GOP state Sen. Scott Brown’s campaign was catching fire around the turn of the New Year and successfully closed the deal over the final two weeks of the campaign, once Coakley returned.

Democrats began making excuses days before voters even went to the polls.

The vacation theme is expected to be a constant one from Democrats going forward. In actuality, the national environment played a large role in the race, along with the low-turnout nature of special elections. The Republican base was fired up, and independents went decidedly for the GOPer, which they can do from time-to-time in deep-blue Massachusetts.

Nostalgia for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and support for his healthcare bill didn’t appear to be near good enough, even in a state that has seen its healthcare system head in a similar direction to the current congressional bill.

It is a rebuke that will be felt by Democrats in other states and districts, but it’s not clear how severe the result will be.

Democrats had an issue to campaign on in a state where it could have worked – if that issue was handled the right way – and it didn’t carry water.

Coakley sought in her concession speech to bat back accusations that she didn’t campaign hard enough.

“I will not forget the fierce determination with which we approached this,” Coakley said, stressing there was no “complacency” involved.

She noted there was plenty of anger among the electorate – a reference to the national environment that greeted the special election.

“There will be plenty of Wednesday morning quarterbacking,” Coakley said. “We will be honest about the assessment of this race. I fully respect the voters’ choice.”

Voters wound up turning out strongly for the race, and Brown’s win was resounding. Coakley’s vacation probably hurt her campaign and might have been symptomatic of other problems, but it is hard to blame it or her completely for the loss.

A Research 2000 poll late in the campaign showed Coakley’s approval rating remained high –58 percent – even at the end of the campaign. That tied poll was a bit of an outlier, with most showing Brown in the lead, but it suggests that dismay with Coakley was only part of the story.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said before the result was declared that Democrats need to stop blaming the candidate and face their problems governing.

"This is not the time to appoint the blame," Dean said on MSNBC. "People who blame others are losers."

In addition to Coakley’s vacation blunder, Democrats are likely to point to her comments saying legendary Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was a New York Yankees fan. The sheer bizarre nature of the quote shows how Coakley messed up at several points of the campaign.

Coakley also at one point suggested it was beneath her to campaign in the “cold” outside Fenway Park.

Brown, meanwhile, closed the deal in the final days of the campaign by appealing to sports fans, including having Schilling speak at a campaign rally and shaking hands before a Boston Bruins game Monday.

Brown’s sporty and populist message contrasted almost perfectly with the national Democratic help Coakley needed down the stretch. If Republicans are to build on his victory this year, they will need the grassroots to give to candidates in the same way it did to Brown, because the national party committees don’t appear to have capitalized enough on the conservative fervor at this point.

Look for Republicans to mimic their approach to this race everywhere, while Democrats use Coakley’s vacation as the biggest cautionary tale of all – in addition to an excuse.