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National Groups Put Funds Into Massachusetts Race

WASHINGTON - Outside groups are pouring millions of dollars into Massachusetts' Senate race to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, highlighting a contest that could determine the fate of national health care legislation.

With days to go before Tuesday's election, groups are blanketing television airwaves, organizing fundraising drives and reminding voters of the national implications of a campaign that will decide whether Democrats keep the 60 votes they need to stop Senate Republicans from blocking legislation.

The balance of power could prove critical for President Obama's health care legislation, which faces a final vote later this year in Congress. The Republican candidate, Scott Brown, opposes the measure. His Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, has vowed to cast the 60th vote needed for approval.

The bill passed the Senate 60-39 on Dec. 24. The state's interim senator, Democrat Paul Kirk, voted for it.

Democrats are meeting in private this week to reconcile differences in the Senate's and House of Representatives' versions of the bill.

"People see this as the last possible chance to stop health care," said Scott Wheeler, of the National Republican Trust political action committee, which says it will spend $100,000 this week for a TV ad on the issue.

Polls spur supporters

The last-minute spending blitz underscores a rapid shift in the race: Just weeks ago, polls showed Democrats with a comfortable margin for the seat, which Kennedy held for 47 years.

Democrats hold a better than 3-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans in Massachusetts, but the Republican candidate gained momentum after a Public Policy Polling survey over the weekend showed the candidates in a virtual tie. Another poll, by the Boston Globe, had Coakley ahead by 15 percentage points.

Both sides have used the polls to rally supporters. In recent days, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Service Employees International Union - both of which have been involved in the debate over health care - began running television ads. The American Future Fund, a conservative group that has criticized Coakley, expects to spend $500,000 on ads, spokesman Nick Ryan said.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also began airing an ad this week that says Brown "wants to be the deciding vote to kill Ted Kennedy's" health care bill.

The committee's counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has not run any ads in the state, and spokesman Brian Walsh declined to comment on the race.

An independent candidate, Joseph Kennedy, is also running. He is no relation to the late senator.

In all, groups and candidates have spent $1.4 million in television advertising since the Dec. 8 primary, said Evan Tracey of the non-partisan Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Going door-to-door

In addition to television ads, groups have been talking about health care as they meet with voters. The AFL-CIO called Coakley an "advocate for health care reform" in a flier it sent to its members this week. Karen Ackerman, political director for the union, said its members have pushed that message as they call voters and knock on doors throughout the state.

Brown "would be a party-line vote with the Republicans, which means he would stop progressive legislation from taking place," Ackerman said.

The candidates are raising large sums in the final days of the campaign. A USA TODAY review of Federal Election Commission reports shows that as of Jan. 11, Coakley has received more than $273,000 in contributions this month, compared with $298,300 for Brown. More than 60 percent of Brown's contributions came from out of state, compared with 36 percent for Coakley.

Debate over the national health care legislation may play differently in Massachusetts than in other states if only because voters there are already subject to many of the provisions being considered, including a requirement that everyone have insurance, explained Bruce Wallin, a political science professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

The average person "may be saying, 'we've already done it,'" he said. "It's become part of our culture."

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