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WASHINGTON — Desperate to avoid another Massachusetts special-election debacle, Democrats are pulling out all the stops for Rep. Edward J. Markey in the contest to keep the Senate seat formerly held by Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Democratic hands.
Markey, a liberal from suburban Boston, is at least a nominal favorite in the June 25 election. But he has failed to put the race away, and Republican candidate Gabriel Gomez, a political novice, is lurking a few percentage points behind in recent public polling.
That has stirred fears among Democrats that their party risks suffering another improbable defeat in this deeply blue state, like the 2010 stunner in which GOP moderate Scott Brown won a special election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
"I can understand why they're nervous," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate campaigns for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Turnout is going to be pretty low," making the result hard to predict.
Caught flat-footed in 2010, national Democrats are clearly on their guard this time. On Wednesday, President Obama flew to Boston to campaign at Markey's side. A day earlier, Vice President Joe Biden and former Vice President Al Gore headlined a Washington fundraiser for the veteran congressman.
Outside groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, the Service Employees International Union and state and national teachers unions have also assisted Markey, helping him gain an advantage in television advertising.
Markey's campaign strategy is simple: Drive up Democratic turnout in one of the most Democratic states in the nation. Last fall in Massachusetts, Obama crushed Mitt Romney, a former governor of the state, and liberal Democrat Elizabeth Warren took back Kennedy's old seat from Brown. But mobilizing voters is notoriously difficult in contests held outside the normal election schedule.
During a brief stop Wednesday at a South Boston diner, Obama tried to do his part to raise voter awareness.
"I want to make sure you know that there's going to be an election coming up for Congressman Markey to send him to the Senate. I want to make sure everybody turns out and votes. All right?" he told lunchtime customers at Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe.
Later, in Roxbury Crossing, he told a crowd of Markey backers, "This election is going to come down to turnout. We've got a whole lot of Democrats in this state and a whole lot of Obama voters, but you can't just turn out during a presidential election."
Biden delivered a similar warning about voter apathy the night before. Without Obama's name on the ballot, the vice president told Markey donors in Washington, "those legions of African Americans and Latinos are not automatically going to come out. No one has energized them like Barack Obama. But he's not on the ticket. So don't take this one for granted."
To win, Gomez would have to benefit from a low Democratic turnout and gain a large majority among independent voters. Even some Republican strategists doubt that will happen.
"When Brown won, he had a lot of national atmospherics around Obamacare, and he had a gaffe-prone opponent" in Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, said Scott Reed, senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which, like other outside pro-Republican groups, hasn't put any money into the Massachusetts race.
Markey, 66, has avoided serious gaffes as he attempts to make himself better known statewide.
Gomez has tried to tie the congressman, one of the most senior lawmakers in Washington, to a deeply unpopular Congress, accusing him of having lost touch with his home state. At the same time, Gomez, a former Navy SEAL with a Harvard MBA degree, has taken steps to distance himself from the national Republican Party.
"A lot of people in my party are wrong on gun control," the Los Angeles-born son of Colombian immigrants said in a debate Tuesday night. Though personally opposed to abortion, Gomez has said that he would not try to change abortion laws as a senator.
Gomez lacks the star power of Brown, whose 2010 election was a precursor to a midterm surge that switched control of the House back to the GOP and narrowed the Democrats' Senate majority. Whether this month's election will offer clues about next year's midterm contests remains an open question.
Both parties will be attempting to gauge the effect of recent Washington controversies on Democratic candidates. Public polling in Massachusetts shows that Democratic support for Obama remains high. But his standing among independents has slipped, as it has nationwide. David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, said that a Republican needs to hold the Democratic candidate to 35% among independents in order to win statewide. Suffolk's latest polling shows Markey at 36% among that group, with more than 10% still undecided.
Among the questions national strategists will ask is whether the recent news reports about National Security Agency surveillance practices will generate a reaction among voters. But vivid memories of the Boston Marathon bombings may make that difficult; surveillance cameras played a key role in the swift apprehension of suspects in the case.
Obama sought to tie his return visit to memories of that event. "By happenstance," he told the Markey rally crowd, he had encountered a nurse from Massachusetts General Hospital minutes earlier.
"I gave her a big hug," he reported. "And I reminded her of how much what she did had meant to so many people all throughout the city, and she was an example of the spirit of Boston during a very difficult time."