BOSTON - Voters thronged to the polls in Massachusetts Tuesday in a special election Republicans hope will be a national game-changer, slowing down President Barack Obama's agenda and loosening the Democratic grip on the U.S. Senate.
As dawn broke in the frosty Northeast, the GOP publicly relished the possibility that a previously obscure state senator, Scott Brown, could wrest the election from Democrat Martha Coakley, considered the overwhelming favorite until just a few days ago.
In contrast to the light turnout for the party primaries last month, both candidates expected a heavy turnout following the national attention thrust upon their race. There was a clear sign at one polling place: A line of cars stretched for nearly a half-mile from the gymnasium at North Andover High School, the polling place for a community of about 30,000 about a half-hour north of Boston. Some drivers turned around in exasperation.
Speaking to reporters after she voted early Tuesday at an elementary school near her home, Coakley voiced confidence that she would win, saying "we've been working every day."
She said "we're paying attention to the ground game. ... Every game has its own dynamics. ... We'll know tonight what the results are." The polls close at 8 p.m. EST.
As people headed to work in Boston, the area's leading all-news radio station was filled with Brown get-out-the-vote ads. He was getting a similar boost from the conservative-leaning hosts of the area's leading sports talk station. Eastern Massachusetts also was hit with intermittent snow showers, placing a premium on motivated voters.
The race to fill the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts neared its conclusion with not only its outcome, but the fate of Obama's program, under a cloud. Republicans want Brown to become their 41st vote in the 100-member Senate, giving them enough strength to successfully filibuster Democratic initiatives, including the massive health care bill that majority Democrats are rushing to finish.
Obama campaigned personally for Coakley on Sunday, urging Democrats to get out and vote, and he also appeared in an eleventh-hour TV commercial on behalf of the attorney general.
"I think it's been a fascinating process to watch unfold," Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele said in an interview as the polls opened. "A year ago, the landscape was very different than we see it today. ... The American people have begun to take charge in these elections."
Steele said that if Brown is successful, the Democrats must quickly seat him. To do otherwise, he said, would be "an unseemly thing."
Former Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe said in an interview that his party must get a strong turnout, acknowleding "an anti-incumbency mood out there."
The swift rise of Brown has spooked Democrats who had considered the seat one of their most reliable. Kennedy, who died in August, held the post for 47 years. The last time Massachusetts elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate was 1972.
Brown has tried to turn Democrats' expectation of an easy win to his advantage, proclaiming, "It's not the Kennedy seat, it's the people's seat."
On Monday, Brown made another bus tour of the state, shaking hands with Boston Bruins fans at lunchtime and ending his day in his hometown of Wrentham, Mass., before an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, again touting the endorsement of former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
"It's us against the machine," he told the group, urging them to vote. "Make sure that we send a message to Washington that business as usual is not how we like to do business."
Coakley also toured the state, enlisting the aid of top Democrats and making a final pitch to female voters. If she wins, Coakley would be the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts.
With the stakes so high, Obama rolled out a last-minute television ad and the campaign launched automated phone calls from Vice President Joe Biden and Kennedy's widow, Vicki Kennedy, targeting voters who supported Obama in 2008. Members of the state's all-Democratic congressional delegation, including Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Barney Frank, also campaigned for Coakley.
"Every vote matters, every voice matters," Obama said in the ad. "We need you on Tuesday."
Both campaigns enlisted small armies of volunteers to staff phone banks and trudge through a mix of heavy snow and slush to remind their voters to get to the polls.
It's unclear whether the full-court press by unnerved Democrats was enough to blunt the surging Brown.
A Suffolk University survey taken Saturday and Sunday showed Brown with double-digit leads in three communities the poll identified as bellwethers: Gardner, Fitchburg and Peabody. But internal statewide polls for both sides showed a dead heat.
For Brown's staunchest supporters, such as Glen Stump, 47, a software engineer from Andover, Democrats' appeals fell on deaf ears.
"I hope he can stop this Obamacare legislation," Stump said, using critics' nickname for the health care overhaul bill. "I think it's being run in a completely partisan manner."
A third candidate, Joseph L. Kennedy, a Libertarian running as an independent, said he's been bombarded with e-mails from Brown supporters urging him to drop out and endorse the Republican. Kennedy, who was polling in the single digits and is no relation to the late senator, said he's staying in.