BOSTON — The January weekend after Democrat Martha Coakley lost a supposedly can't-miss election for U.S. Senate, "Saturday Night Live" underscored the graveness of her political future with a skit where a Barack Obama impersonator labeled her "the single most incompetent candidate ever to seek public office in this nation's history."
Three months later, Coakley faces the very real prospect of being re-elected as Massachusetts attorney general this fall without a Republican opponent.
The shift reflects lingering weakness within the state GOP, despite its success in staging Scott Brown's upset win.
It also highlights Coakley's work to rehabilitate her image, as well as the satisfaction some voters feel for her in her current role.
"There is some irony in that," said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at UMass-Boston. "In some ways, it's as though the January election didn't take place, or that at least it did not have the consequences for her own political future – or opportunity for the Republicans – that virtually everyone was talking about on Jan. 20."
Coakley acknowledges she's monitoring the progress of a potential Republican challenger, but says she won't let her guard down until May 4 – if then. Prospective candidates have until that day to submit the signatures of 10,000 registered voters for review by city and town clerks.
"I have always assumed I would have a Republican opponent, and until May 4, I'm still working on that assumption," Coakley said. Then, in a telling moment, she added: "And after May 4, I'm going to campaign and work as if I do have an opponent."
Until January, the 56-year-old Coakley had been something of the golden girl of Massachusetts politics. She was elected district attorney in high-profile Middlesex County, then succeeded her mentor, Thomas Reilly, as attorney general. When Sen. John Kerry ran for president in 2004, and then Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer in May 2008, Coakley laid the groundwork to run for each of their seats.
Kennedy succumbed to his disease last August, and Coakley was the first candidate in either party to declare her candidacy in January's special election. She handily won the Democrats' December primary, and seemed on cruise-control to win the seat her party had held for more than a half-century.
Then Brown, a little-known state senator, rode a wave of anti-government, anti-Obama administration sentiment to victory.
Where Coakley disappeared from public views for days, and took a mini-vacation on Cape Cod, Brown relentlessly campaigned across the state. He ended up winning, costing the president the 60th Democratic vote he needed to avoid filibusters in the Senate, forcing him to overhaul his tactics for passing a national health care overhaul.
Coakley herself later conceded the depth of her failure, telling one interviewer, "I'll always be the woman who lost Ted Kennedy's seat."
She told The Associated Press she considered not seeking re-election, but only momentarily.
"It kind of energized me," she said of her loss, "because I care so much about the work and the job, that I do a better job campaigning and getting my message out. Running for office is the way you get to do a job for the public."
Coakley has already submitted the necessary signatures for re-election. She's also been out stumping at Democratic caucuses, and has re-engaged her attorney general's media apparatus.
The chairwoman of the state GOP says she's trying to lure two unnamed businessmen to run.
"Everyone who is considering it is a professional who has a career and a family," Chairwoman Jennifer Nassour said.
The absence of an attorney general candidate was notable at the Republican's otherwise raucous nominating convention on April 17, where Brown was the keynote speaker and celebrity attendee.
Nonetheless, Nassour is focusing on the relative heft of her candidates for the state's other five constitutional offices.
"I don't want just any name on the ballot; I want it to be someone who is a phenomenal candidate," she said. "If we don't end up having a candidate, then I don't think it reflects poorly on the party; I think it shows thoughtfulness by the party that we didn't just throw anyone up there."
Coakley said she has been heartened by the response she's getting on the campaign trail.
"I found out shaking hands and getting signatures, people said to me, `I voted for your opponent, but I think you did a great job as attorney general and I'll sign your papers,'" she said. "That makes me feel pretty good."