BOSTON — With the Massachusetts U.S. Senate special election entering the home stretch, President Obama issued a full-throated endorsement of Democrat Edward Markey at a Boston rally Wednesday and urged supporters to go to the polls.
“We’ve got a whole lot of Democrats in this state and a whole lot of Obama voters,” the president said. “But you can’t just turn out for a presidential election. You’ve got to turn out in this election.”
Obama’s speech before an estimated 5,400 on the Roxbury Community College campus came just days after two independent polls showed Markey holding onto a slim seven-point lead.
And Markey’s Republican opponent, former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, told reporters Wednesday that the Obama appearance is evidence that Democrats are running scared.
Democrats dismiss the idea, noting that Markey’s lead — if small — has been relatively consistent over the course of the campaign.
But the party and its allies, scarred by Republican Scott Brown’s surprise victory over Democrat Martha Coakley in the Senate special election of 2010, are not taking any chances.
A Democratic official tells WBUR that former President Bill Clinton will stump for Markey in Worcester Saturday.
And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the independent Senate Majority PAC have spent some $1.3 million in recent days on ads attacking Gomez on tax fairness, Social Security and Medicare.
The aggressive effort to align Gomez with conservative Republicans was on full display at the Wednesday rally.
Several warm-up speakers, including Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, took oblique or direct shots at the GOP nominee. And Markey, speaking just before the president, offered a forceful critique of his own.
“My opponent says that he’s a new kind of Republican, but he backs the oldest, stalest Republican ideas from the past,” said Markey, who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for the past 37 years.
“I support a ban on assault weapons,” he continued. “I support a ban on the high-capacity magazines that attach to those assault weapons. My opponent supports the National Rifle Association’s position.”
Attacks lobbed, Obama offered up a different sort of speech.
Standing before a large U.S. flag at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, the president began with a joke about the Stanley Cup Finals that begin Wednesday night — pitting the Boston Bruins against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I am not going to talk trash about the hockey game,” said Obama, a longtime resident of Chicago. “I’m not going to say anything about the outstanding qualities of the Chicago Blackhawks.”
He then spoke of the “spirit of selflessness and generosity” that swept Boston after the marathon bombings and invoked the legacy of former U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry.
“Here in Massachusetts,” he said, “you have a long history of sending smart, tough, hardworking leaders to the Senate, who roll up their sleeves and fight the great battles on behalf of middle-class families and everybody who’s trying to get into the middle class.”
“Nobody,” he added later, “is better suited to continue that legacy than Ed Markey, because Ed’s one of you.”
Obama went on to offer a wide-ranging defense of the Democratic agenda — clean energy, more infrastructure spending and full implementation of Obamacare.
Markey has been a “steady” and “constant” voice for that agenda as a member of the House, the president said. And he’d serve a similar role, Obama suggested, in the upper chamber.
“I’ve got to have folks in the United States Senate who are willing to stand up for working people just like I am,” the president said. “I need Ed Markey in the United States Senate.”
It was a diverse crowd that cheered the president. And the speakers line-up was a diverse one, too. Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, who is black, spoke of getting assault weapons off the street. City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who is also black, emphasized women’s issues. And State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said Gomez is not the only Latino in the race.
“There’s you and there’s you and there’s me,” she said.
A strong minority turnout is important for the Markey campaign.
Obama came to Boston at a difficult point in his presidency. The heady swirl of his re-election has dissipated amid a series of controversies over the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records and the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups.
But Obama, for all his struggles, remains a popular figure in Massachusetts. And Gomez has not made a concerted effort to harness the Washington controversies.
Public discontent was running hotter the last time the president came to Massachusetts to stump for a Democrat in a special U.S. Senate election.
It was 2010 and disdain for Obama’s health reform proposal had leeched into the Bay State, which pioneered the ideas at the heart of his pitch.
The Tea Party was emerging as a potent political force. Brown was surging. And the president’s last-minute appearance was not enough to hold him back.
This time around, the mood a bit different, Obama paid a pre-speech visit to Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe on Columbus Avenue in the South End. The commander-in-chief’s order: a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, mustard and french fries.