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Tsongas Is Favored Today

But Latest Poll Showed Donoghue Gaining in Democratic Primary

In the special election to replace former Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), the Democratic field has tightened significantly leading up to today’s primary, while retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Ogonowski appears poised to lock up the GOP nomination for the October general election.

There are six candidates in the Democratic primary, but experts are now calling the race a two-way contest.

Niki Tsongas, widow of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), entered the Democratic race with the highest name identification and as of last week remained the frontrunner in the

Lowell-based 5th district. According to a Survey USA poll released late Thursday, she held an 11-point lead over former Lowell Mayor Eileen Donoghue, 40 percent to 29 percent, with state Rep. Jamie Eldridge taking 15 percent.

But that was down from the 22-point lead Tsongas held over Donoghue in the previous Survey USA poll released Aug. 14.

Tsongas has led the primary field in big-name endorsements, including major Massachusetts newspapers, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Meehan’s wife, Ellen Murphy. She also has been ahead in fundraising and earlier this summer earned the support of EMILY’s List, the fundraising powerhouse. Through Aug. 15, Tsongas had raised more than $1.2 million for the race.

Jonathan Parker, political director for EMILY’s List, said last week that the group considered endorsing both Tsongas and Donoghue but decided Tsongas “was the one candidate that truly had broad appeal across the district.”

Donoghue has put up $490,000 of her own money in the race and has raised concerns in recent debates about the outcome being affected by contributors from outside the district.

She said she decided to use so much of her own money for the contest because she didn’t want to spend all her time working the phone lines to raise dollars.

“We’re on a short timetable … and there’s only so much money you can raise within the district, quite frankly. I wanted to get out and meet the voters.”

Both Donoghue and Tsongas agreed that in a post-Labor Day primary with no other race on the ballot, getting supporters to make the trip to the polls is the biggest concern.

“It’s been a summertime special election and getting the electorate to focus has been a challenge,” Donoghue said. “People are on vacation in July and doing other things, but now … people are certainly aware that it’s an important election and are focusing on not just the race but the candidates.”

In a district where Meehan won 159,000 votes in 2006, Jon Keller, a veteran New England political analyst for WBZ-TV in Boston, said Friday that getting 40,000 voters to show up would be a better-than-expected turnout.

In mailers and advertisements, Donoghue, who currently serves as a Lowell city councilor, has been pomoting herself as a veteran politician rather than just a candidate with a well-recognized name.

“What I’m hearing … is people are saying to me you’re the one who has experience,” Donoghue said. “That’s what people are looking for — someone who has experience and someone who they think can get the job done.”

Tsongas countered that there’s ample evidence that holding previous elected offices is not necessary to represent a district well and pointed to Meehan, a former prosecutor and political aide before entering Congress.

Tsongas, the dean of external affairs at Middlesex Community College, argued that she is no political neophyte and learned much from her late husband “over the course of many elected offices that really were a shared undertaking every election.”

If she were elected, Tsongas said she would go to Washington, D.C., “with some familiarity with those who are in positions of great authority today and I can deliver for this district on the many issues we face from day one.”

Keller said Tsongas “has been a competent campaigner but not very exciting or compelling. She has made no obvious mistakes, but increasingly over the last few weeks she has become a target particularly of Donoghue but also the other candidates.”

Keller said that as the race winds down, Donoghue has been cranking up a machine that has worked well for her in the past in local elections.

“She is a veteran pol with an active campaign organization who has been running races and winning them on a regular basis, and I think you’re seeing the effects of her field operation,” Keller said of the tightening polls. “Tsongas claims to have a field operation, too, but she hasn’t moved. If she holds onto her 40 [percent] she’ll win, but [moving up just 2 points since the previous poll] does send up a red flag.”

On the Republican side, the Survey USA poll has Ogonowski, who is the brother of an American Airlines pilot who was killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, beating veteran GOP candidate Tom Tierney by 60 points in the primary.

Keller noted that whomever the Democratic candidate turns out to be for the Oct.16 general election, Ogonowski would face “a huge uphill climb” to swing the seat to the GOP.

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