The U.S. Senate candidates in Massachusetts clashed Saturday over a proposed bank bailout tax, abandoning health care for a new issue that the White House hopes will attract mainstream voters angry about Wall Street abuses and that Republicans say affirms Democrats as a pro-tax party.
A day before President Obama's late visit to try to preserve a 60th Senate vote critical to his agenda, Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown tussled over the president's tax plan. The candidates are in a dead heat heading into Tuesday's election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, despite the state's long Democratic tradition and Kennedy's cherished stature.
"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 said he was the one with the working class in mind. He said the tax would restrict banks from making loans and that consumers would end up paying higher service and ATM fees.
Obama contends that with banks shelling out for big bonuses, they can afford the tax. It would be used to close a deficit in the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which many big banks used for bailouts but have since repaid.
"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 she were 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."
Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said: "A lot of our members are dramatically uninformed about this election and about the positions of the two candidates in this race."
His voice rising to a yell, Haynes said: "If there's anybody in this room, or any brother or sister of yours across this commonwealth, that's suffering from some misconception, it's up to us tell them."
Obama planned a quick dash to Boston Sunday to appear with Coakley in a gymnasium 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."
Weld remains popular because of his record of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. Brown has avoided appearing with the most recent Republican governor, Mitt Romney, who took a sharply conservative turn while running for president in 2008.
Coakley and Brown also clashed over his decision not to provide health insurance for his campaign staff. Coakley provides coverage for her workers, but Brown treats them as independent contractors. They either have insurance from other jobs or get a salary bump to get coverage under the state's universal health care program. The move also allows Brown to avoid payroll taxes.
"Scott Brown has a campaign, he has employees, he doesn't pay health care for his employees," Coakley said. "All you need to do is look at his action, what he's done."
Brown retorted: "The people who are working for me, they're happy."
The third candidate in the race, independent Joseph L. Kennedy, has largely limited his campaign to debate appearances.
Coakley crushed three opponents in December's party primary, gaining nearly 50 percent of the vote and beating her next closest rival by 19 percentage points. Brown has never run statewide and was largely unknown in a state where he and his fellow Republicans represent only 15 percent of the Legislature.
But he has surged with aggressive campaigning while Coakley employed a Rose Garden strategy to try avoid a general election mistake. Brown has risen while Coakley has fallen as voters exhibit the same pro-populism, anti-government sentiment that propelled Republicans to victory in November's gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.
Democrats and Republicans say internal polls show the race has tightened as some Democrats return to the party in the waning days. But Brown still has enthusiasm on his side, and is viewed more favorably than Coakley.
Turnout will be critical, both sides agree.