BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate candidates clashed Saturday over a proposed bank bailout tax, sidestepping health care for another midterm issue that President Barack Obama hopes will win back mainstream voters angry about Wall Street abuses, the recession and high unemployment.
A day before Obama visits the state to try to preserve a 60th Senate vote critical to his health care overhaul and the rest of his agenda, Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown used what's suddenly a national stage to test their parties' 2010 campaign messages.
Coakley and Brown are locked in a dead heat heading into Tuesday's special election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, despite the state's long Democratic tradition and his stature as a party icon.
Both Obama and Coakley pivoted sharply this week, she after polls that showed Brown emerging from a double-digit deficit a week earlier to catch up with her.
"When President Obama says, 'Let's get our taxpayer dollar back,' I'm standing with him, and I'm standing with you," Coakley told union members about to canvass on her behalf.
Brown's message was that Coakley and Democrats will raise taxes, while he and Republicans will cut them.
"I'm not in favor of a huge payout" for bank executives, Brown said. "The bottom line is a tax right now on anybody in the midst of a recession is not the way to go."
The state senator told supporters at a series of bus tour stops that it was one of many taxes Coakley would impose if elected.
The Democrats' challenge was evident during her first appearance Saturday. The Massachusetts attorney general sought to flex the party's traditional union muscle during a stop at an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall, but several speakers acknowledged many in the rank and file are interested in Brown.
"I have a lot of friends out there that are talking about voting the other way for whatever reason," state Rep. Marty Walsh, a Boston Democrat, told the crowd. "Look at their records, and then come back and tell me with a straight face that our friends can vote for the other side, because the other side doesn't care about working-class people."
Obama planned a dash to Boston today to appear with Coakley at Northeastern University.
"I think he will provide the focus … for voters in Massachusetts about what's really at stake here," she said.
In suburban Quincy, Brown appeared with former Massachusetts Republican Gov. William F. Weld, now a corporate lawyer in New York. Weld endorsed Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, but he said voters are now suffering "spending fatigue and tax fatigue."
Of Brown, Weld said, "He's not going to be a rubber stamp for every trillion dollars that comes along."
Democrats and Republicans say internal polls show the race has tightened as some Democrats return to the party in the waning days. Turnout will be critical, both sides agree.