Republicans' leading man was a Cosmo centrefold

Candidate battling Democrats in Kennedy seat named America's sexiest man – in 1982

As voters in Massachusetts flooded polling centres yesterday to choose a successor to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, there was one image of the Republican runner, Scott Brown, that may or may not have been in their minds: half prone and naked with only a carefully placed hand hiding his most precious assets.

A campaign poster this was not. Rather it was the picture of him that graced a spread inside Cosmopolitan magazine when it named him "America's Sexiest Man" in 1982.

Had it emerged sooner, the portrait could have put the brakes on the Brown insurgency. But last night, he was potentially on the brink of pulling off one of the most astonishing election upsets in years, with the general consensus being that the race was too close to call.

Supporters of his Democrat rival, Martha Coakley, who until a few days ago thought they had a lock on the contest, tried at the last moment to point to comments made by Mr Brown during the 2008 presidential campaign insinuating that Barack Obama may have been born out of wedlock. Yet such has been the ferocity of fire that has propelled Mr Brown's campaign in recent days, it is possible that not even last-minute embarrassments could have stopped it.

Driving this surge has been a welling of voter discontent on the first anniversary of Mr Obama's swearing-in, for reasons ranging from a still cruel economy and the perception of a federal government turned bloated and profligate in Washington. Ms Coakley has seen her once 30 percentage-point lead over Mr Brown evaporate in just days.

That Massachusetts suddenly became the epicentre of American politics this week took everyone by surprise. Special elections like this normally bring sparse participation, but there were huge queues at ballot stations throughout the state yesterday indicating an exceptionally high turnout.

If Mr Obama wakes this morning to find that the one-time Cosmo model has indeed won, then the President faces the real possibility that the healthcare reform bill that has taken a year to squeeze through the creaking cogs of Congress may be stopped in its tracks.

Even before the Massachusetts result was known, Democrat leaders on Capitol Hill were insisting that a way would be found to get the bill on to the President's desk for signature. "There is no 'back to the drawing board'", House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters, saying there would be a final healthcare law "one way or the other".

But anything that looks like legislative trickery could bring a nasty backlash for Democrats with a new Washington Post-ABC poll showing that only 44 per cent of Americans now support the reform plan, with 51 per cent opposed. With midterm elections due in November, the governing party cannot risk alienating voters any further.

As for the Cosmopolitan spread, which appeared in the June 1982 issue, Mr Brown was at Boston College in the midst of his final law exams when it was shot. Though he surely cannot have known that one day he would compete to fill the shoes of Teddy Kennedy, he did give a hint as to his future ambitions in a brief interview when he admitted to being a "bit of a patriot".

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