Huge test of Democratic rule

This race shouldn't even be close. A Republican? Within reach of the Senate seat long held by liberal lion Ted Kennedy? In ocean-blue Massachusetts?

It's true. And while Democrat Martha Coakley may yet win in next Tuesday's special election, the fact that Republican state Sen. Scott Brown is within striking distance in most polls -- and ahead in at least one -- is a huge statement about Coakley, about Democratic bungling in Washington and about the historic collapse of Barack Obama's popularity.

Coakley, the state's attorney general, is turning out to be a disaster of a candidate. In a debate Monday, she ludicrously claimed that we'd done everything we can in Afghanistan -- and that there are no terrorists left there.

Pundits were comparing her Grand Canyon-sized gaffe with President Gerald Ford's assertion in a 1976 presidential debate that Poland was not under Soviet influence. Someone with a fiendish sense of humor loaded a video of her ridiculous claim onto the Internet -- alongside a video of Afghanistan's most recent suicide bomber.

Then, following a lobbyist-fueled fund-raiser in Washington this week, Coakley ignored invitations from the press to explain her statement about Afghanistan -- and as she walked away, an aide of hers reportedly knocked a reporter to the ground. She claimed to have no first-hand knowledge of it -- but an Associated Press photographer caught her looking at the journalist on the ground.

Still, the Massachusetts Senate race is mostly being seen as a referendum on Democratic rule in general and the health-care reform debacle in particular. Brown has promised to be the 41st vote needed in the U.S. Senate to block the Democrats' ominous takeover of health care.

That such a promise would play as well as it is in Massachusetts -- home of Ted Kennedy and a model for government-centric health care -- is an astounding statement of voters' revulsion at the thought of government health care.

Expect a crescendo of excitement and suspense next Tuesday, as political observers across the country watch the outcome of this one, telltale race.

The thing is, with the race so tight, Democrats may already have lost: Win or lose, the Republican has made a resounding statement about the likely fortunes of Democrats and their ill-conceived health-care bill.

The election isn't until Tuesday. But the referendum may already be over.

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