By ABBY GOODNOUGH
"They said that women don't have much luck in Massachusetts politics," Martha M. Coakley said in her victory speech Tuesday night. "But we believed it was quite possible that that luck was about to change, and change it did."
Martha M. Coakley, seen campaigning outside the polls on Election Day, won the Democratic primary contest in Massachusetts on Tuesday for the seat that Senator Edward M. Kennedy held for 47 years.
Perpetually articulate and composed, Ms. Coakley, who captured the Democratic nomination Tuesday in a race with three other candidates for the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy's seat, has won respect in state political and legal circles for years.
As an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, the state's most populous, Ms. Coakley made a name for herself prosecuting child abuse cases -- most notably that of Louise Woodward, a British au pair convicted in 1997 of killing a baby boy in her care. Ms. Coakley's polished appearances on national television during the trial brought her fans and broad name recognition, and in 1999 she became the first woman elected as the county's district attorney.
Just as easily, she swept the state attorney general's race in 2006, and as the first woman to hold that job, she has championed abortion rights, same-sex marriage and other socially liberal causes while presenting a law-and-order persona.
Now poised to become the first female senator from Massachusetts, Ms. Coakley, 56, is seen as a highly disciplined, if not passionate, politician who rarely surprises or missteps. Her persona contrasted sharply with that of her closest Democratic rival, Representative Michael E. Capuano, whose temper is known to erupt and whose pursuit of unleashed Rottweilers with a baseball bat in a local park years ago, recounted in a recent newspaper profile, was a favorite primary-season anecdote.
If short on the charisma that Mr. Kennedy displayed, Ms. Coakley has won high likability ratings. She captured 47 percent of the Democratic vote on Tuesday, followed by Mr. Capuano with 28 percent. Alan Khazei, who runs a national service program, had 13 percent of the vote, and Stephen Pagliuca, a co-owner of the Boston Celtics, had 12 percent.
In a Boston Globe poll last month, most respondents said they would rather have a beer with Ms. Coakley than with any of her male opponents.
She bills herself as "a different kind of leader," and while she has played down her sex during the campaign, Ms. Coakley is clearly focused on winning the support of women. She secured an early endorsement from Emily's List, the fund-raising network for candidates who support abortion rights. And she attacked the amendment restricting abortion access in the House health care bill last month, saying, "It's personal with me, and it's personal with every woman."
Critics say she has avoided public corruption cases for politically expedient reasons -- not least retaining strong support on Beacon Hill. The Massachusetts Republican Party also accused her of using money from her state campaign account to finance early steps in her federal campaign, a complaint that the Federal Election Commission is investigating.
She has also drawn barbs for laying the groundwork for a Senate race months before Mr. Kennedy died, and for announcing her candidacy only days after his funeral.
"Martha Coakley has spent more time planning a run for Senate than serving the people of Massachusetts," Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Martha Mary Coakley grew up in North Adams, a mill town in the Berkshires, the third of five children in a middle-class Roman Catholic family. A star debater in high school, she was among the first women admitted to Williams College, a few miles from her hometown.
She got her law degree from Boston University, spent seven years in private practice and joined the Middlesex district attorney's office in 1986, when she was 33.
Ms. Coakley married in her late 40s; she and her husband, Thomas O'Connor, a retired deputy police superintendent, have two dogs and no children.
"I think in my late 30s I went through the, you know, do I want to have a child?" she told The Globe in 1999. "I thought about this very seriously, because I didn't want to suddenly be 60 and say, "Oh, my God, I never did it.' But I think I came to a pretty clear resolution, which I am pretty happy with. Which is, you can't do everything in life."
Ms. Coakley is said to love skiing, biking and show tunes, but her fun-loving side was rarely on display this fall. In her victory speech, she said she had campaigned with focus, grit and, "yes, a sense of humor, believe it or not."