By Matt Viser, Globe Staff
Stalwarts in the Democratic Party rallied today behind their new US Senate nominee, Attorney General Martha Coakley, in an effort to project unity in keeping a seat long held by the late Edward M. Kennedy.
"There is no way in hell we're going to elect a Republican to Ted Kennedy's seat," said US Representative Michael E. Capuano, Coakley's chief primary rival. "Period."
Coakley now faces state Senator Scott Brown, the Republican nominee, in the Jan. 19 special election.
Indicating the strong position Coakley feels that she's in, she barely uttered Brown's name during the event at the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston and has no further plans to campaign today. After the rally, Coakley went back to her campaign headquarters to make phone calls and regroup with her staff.
It was a festive affair, with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo joking about Senate President Therese Murray's dancing the night before ("I think she's ready for dancing with the stars," he said). Some still couldn't pronounce Stephen Pagliuca's name properly, inserting the silent G when they mentioned him.
Coakley readily dispensed hugs, sometimes stopping people before they were finished with their remarks.
"I knew Senator Kennedy, I loved Senator Kennedy," said Governor Deval Patrick. "I never got these many hugs from Senator Kennedy."
"You're just a class act, you really are," said City Year co-founder Alan Khazei, one of Coakley's primary challengers.
"I like her on every level," Capuano said.
"It's like bringing the Beatles back together again, we spent so much time together," Pagliuca said. "To beat three Italians is a major, major feat. Just one would be a challenge, but three? I think the three of us are going to sponsor a huge spaghetti dinner as a fund-raiser."
Coakley, who wore a red, white, and blue donkey pendant, delivered a 10-minute stump speech in which she reiterated many of the issues she talked about during the primary campaign, including health care, the economy, and clean energy. She never mentioned her opponent and only vaguely talked of the general election to say the campaign won't take anything for granted.
Afterward, she fended off criticisms from her Republican opponent and any attempts to challenge his record.
"I'm going run my campaign based upon what I'm doing," she said, when asked about differences with Brown. "That's really a question for Scott. I ran a strong campaign in the primary, I'm going to run the same way in the general election."
"The voters will get to decide whether that's accurate or not," she said, when asked about his criticisms that she'd be a partisan placeholder. "I've got a strong message. I think the numbers from yesterday showed that."
Brown this morning took a no new taxes pledge, and asked Coakley to do the same.
"I don't get involved in campaign gimmicks," she said. "I'm just not going to respond to that."
He also challenged her to two debates, on Jan. 10 and 11.
"We know we'll be debating," Coakley said. "That's something we'll let the campaign figure out. We look forward to debates with him"
One major difference between the candidates is over the troop buildup in Afghanistan, and the irony that Brown supports the Democratic president's plan while Coakley does not.
"I just feel based upon what I know at this time it's not going to accomplish the goals that the president has set out, and we will stay mired there longer than we should," Coakley said.
President Obama's health care overhaul is also likely to be a major issue. Coakley this morning said she supports the plan outlined by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, even though it doesn't include the robust public option that liberal Democrats desire.
"Even if we can only get incremental progress in this bill, it's important to take these steps," Coakley said. "If we can get some progress in Congress, that's a good thing. But it means the battle for health care will continue, and I will continue to be an advocate for a strong public option."
Coakely said her campaign has about $400,000 to $500,000 remaining to use for the general election, which means she'll also have to concentrate on fund-raising.