Fearful of another surprise Republican victory, Democrats are pouring money into the Massachusetts Senate race to succeed John Kerry and dispatching President Barack Obama to the state to rally party loyalists two weeks before Election Day.
Republicans are watching closely to see if the contest tightens enough to justify spending big on TV ads to try to repeat the shocker of 2010 when the GOP unexpectedly seized a seat long in Democratic hands.
Until now, the special election set for June 25 has garnered little attention inside Massachusetts following the marathon bombings, much less outside the state.
Rep. Ed Markey, the dean of the state's congressional delegation, has led every public and private poll released in recent weeks. He enjoys the inherent advantages of being a Democrat in a state where Democrats dramatically outnumber Republicans. His Republican opponent, Gabriel Gomez, is a former Navy SEAL with no political experience and positions on gun control and abortion that are unpopular among Massachusetts voters.
Gomez has largely been on his own in the campaign, with national Republican groups reluctant to devote resources to a race many Washington-based strategists have thought unwinnable for the GOP.
Both sides expect a flood of new advertising in the coming days. So far, Democrats have outspent Republicans roughly $2 million to $1.5 million, according to officials who track political advertising. The Senate Democrats' campaign arm has reserved another $750,000 for statewide television ads to help Markey, while the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC planned to invest another $700,000 in the final weeks. The League of Conservation Voters also has pledged to spend $400,000 on mailings to benefit the Democratic nominee.
Ahead of Obama's visit next week, Democratic leaders are dispatching another heavy-hitter, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to rally Massachusetts voters this weekend.
The spending disparity aside, the uncertainty of off-year special elections and the lessons of Republican Scott Brown's 2010 victory loom large for Republicans and Democrats alike.
It's unclear whether public and private polling is giving an accurate picture of the race. With low turnout almost guaranteed, pollsters have a tough time identifying those who are actually likely to vote. Only about half of the state's registered voters turned out in the state's 2010 special Senate election compared with the nearly three-quarters who voted in the November 2012 elections. All that makes it incredibly difficult to get a clear picture of who may win.
At the same time, Democrats are mindful not to get be caught off-guard by a late-game GOP surge like the one that carried Brown to victory three years ago in the race to succeed the late Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat. Party leaders say they are increasingly optimistic about keeping their hold on Kerry's seat and call the moves an insurance policy to prevent a repeat of the outcome that embarrassed Democrats and complicated Obama's first-term agenda.
"Democrats are confident, but we're taking nothing for granted," said Matt Canter, the deputy executive director of Senate Democrats' national campaign arm. "It's because of what happened in 2010."
Back then, the party devoted few resources to helping state Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee, in her race against the little-known Brown. National Republicans and Brown waged a covert campaign in the run-up to the January 2010 special election, spending money under the radar for weeks while the tea party publicly rallied behind him. The race tightened, catching Democrats flat-footed, and Obama made a last-ditch effort to save Coakley with a visit to the state just two days before the election.
So this year, the White House dispatched first lady Michelle Obama to campaign for Markey last week in Boston, and Obama will visit the state next week - a full two weeks before the election - in hopes of motivating Democrats to turn out.
Democrats cite the lessons of 2010 as the leading factor behind Obama's involvement, with one official going so far as to describe the feeling as Brown-related post-traumatic stress disorder. The party sees Obama's Boston visit as mutually beneficial, giving a boost to Markey while allowing the president to put his stamp on the race. One Democratic official familiar with the White House's political strategy says the party anticipates that Markey will win by less than 10 percentage points and not in a blowout.
Gomez cast Obama's upcoming visit as a sign of the GOP's own fortunes: "Congressman Markey must be feeling some extreme heat to bring in somebody of President Obama's caliber."
More than Democratic pride is at stake.
Democrats narrowly control the Senate, and party officials acknowledge that Obama can't afford to lose another reliably liberal vote when he has big-ticket legislative priorities on his plate. Upcoming votes on immigration and the budget could come down to just a few votes - and Democrats already are down one this week with the death of Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. That state's governor, Chris Christie, tapped a fellow Republican to fill the seat until a special election in October.
Republicans, for their part, acknowledge there's only an outside chance that they can again eke out a victory over a Democrat in the liberal-leaning state. And few GOP stars or organizations have been willing to help Gomez, who acknowledged having voted for Obama in 2008.
The tea party movement that fueled Brown's victory three years ago has stood down. A Massachusetts-based super PAC created to help Gomez has been virtually silent so far. And conservative groups that spent millions to help Republicans win congressional elections just last fall haven't weighed in, although some are conducting their own polling and may become players if the race is deemed close enough.
Gomez has distanced himself from some national Republican leaders - former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, among them - who represent a brand of conservative ideology considered a political liability in Massachusetts. On Thursday, Gomez campaigned with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a moderate Republican, and was forced to respond to Democratic suggestions that he would restrict abortion rights.
"I'm not going to spend a single minute of any day changing the law on abortion," said Gomez, who has described himself as "pro-life." Giuliani castigated Democrats for raising abortion, saying, "This is the Democratic thing they throw out there when they're losing an election."
Washington Republicans have become frustrated with Gomez' struggle to put Markey on the defensive.
The Democrat has served in Congress for 37 years, and Americans have a low opinion of that institution. He also has repeatedly faced difficult questions about whether he lives in Washington or his eastern Massachusetts district. Markey also can sometimes appear ill at ease with voters.
Gomez, meanwhile, has faced tough questions in recent weeks about a $281,000 tax deduction he took for promising not to alter his historic Cohasset home, and he is far from a polished speaker. But he appears relatively comfortable while engaging with prospective voters at campaign stops.
Political analysts largely viewed their debate this week - the first of three - as far from a game-changer, though some said the focus on policy differences benefited Markey, whose positions are more in line with the state's liberal voters.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman in Washington and Steve LeBlanc and Bob Salsberg in Boston contributed to this report.