BOSTON Democrats in Massachusetts are scrambling to hold onto what has been among their safest U.S. Senate seats -- the one long held by the late Edward Kennedy -- in a special election that could change the balance of power in the U.S. Congress.
If Republicans pull off what would be a shocking victory in the January 19 vote, as polls show is at least possible, Democrats would lose the U.S. Senate supermajority needed to pass healthcare reform and much of the rest of President Barack Obama's agenda.
To be sure, Democrats are expected to ultimately prevail. But they have brought in their big guns, including former President Bill Clinton, to campaign this week for their nominee, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Kennedy's widow, Vicki, also broke her silence on the election with a Coakley endorsement. Kennedy died of brain cancer in August at age 77 after serving nearly a half century in the Senate.
"Democrats have woken up," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "I'd say the chances are 95 percent that she wins."
At one point Coakley led by 30 percentage points over Republican state senator Scott Brown. But her lead has narrowed amid an anti-incumbent mood and a backlash against the Democrats' healthcare plan and high unemployment.
Even so, Democratic leaders were startled by a survey on Friday from Public Policy Polling showing Brown edging Coakley by a point, 48 percent to 47 percent.
The Boston Globe, though, showed Coakley with a 15-point advantage over Brown in a survey published on Sunday, and an internal Democratic poll on Monday showed a similar outcome.
Coakley and Brown were to meet on Monday in their final debate, one that has drawn plenty of interest from congressional leaders in Washington.
On Monday Coakley, who has run a largely bloodless campaign, finally went on the attack, accusing Brown of wanting to take the country backward.
"Not only is Scott Brown a roadblock to progress, he wants to go back to the failed policies of the Bush-Cheney administration," she said at a press conference.
HEALTH CARE REFORM IN BALANCE
The Massachusetts race is critical to moving Obama's agenda forward. Democrats need 60 votes in the 100-member U.S. Senate to be able to clear Republican procedural hurdles and pass legislation without a single Republican vote.
There are now 60 members in the Senate Democratic Caucus, and Democrats have needed every one of them in the past year to pass a number of bills, including a preliminary measure in December to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system.
Democrats are now seeking to reconcile the U.S. Senate bill with a version of the measure earlier passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. They hope to win passage of a compromise measure this month and then send it to Obama to sign into law.
With healthcare reform in the balance, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is staying mum on whether he would seat Brown immediately, should an upset occur, or delay certification until the Democrats can pass their bill.
Interim Senator Paul Kirk, who will hold the seat until the election winner is sworn in and was hand-picked by the Kennedy family, has said he will vote for the health care bill.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro in Washington; Editing by Eric Walsh)