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Democrats See Brown Win as "Wake Up Call"

Updated 6:09 p.m. Eastern Time

On the first anniversary of his inauguration, President Barack Obama was scrambling Wednesday to salvage health care reform and other key measures on his agenda after Democrats lost a critical race for the Senate seat of liberal stalwart Edward M. Kennedy.

Republican Scott Brown's win in the special election Tuesday for the Massachusetts seat was a stunning and bitter setback for Obama whose patient shepherding of health care reform was nearing success in Congress.

That is no longer assured because the Democrat's 60-seat super-majority - needed to overcome Republican stalling tactics - vanished with the drubbing of Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

"The people of Massachusetts spoke," Obama said in an interview Wednesday, promising no action on the legislation until Brown is sworn in. "He's got to be part of that process."

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Democrats don't have a lot of "political cover" from their president at this point, says CBS News political analyst John Dickerson. "Everyone is looking over their shoulder now."

Brown, a state senator with a low profile, was initially seen as a sure loser. But he became the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts since 1972. The state's registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3-to-1.

"I was asked many times what kind of Republican I would be and I really didn't know how to answer that," he said. "I just said I am going to be a Scott Brown Republican."

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Brown built his come-from-behind victory over Coakley by, among other pledges, promising to vote against the Democrats' sweeping bid to reform the American health care system and focusing on the bad economy and Obama's decision to give a key Sept. 11 terrorist a hearing in the federal courts.

The five-percentage-point win over Coakley was widely viewed as reflecting a wave of voter dissatisfaction over Obama's agenda and the nation's dismal economic condition.

But Coakley, who earlier had led by double digits, was seen to have run a weak campaign. One top Democratic official called the Coakley campaign "the worst case of political malpractice in history," CBS News Congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes reports.

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Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican presidential rival in 2008, likened Brown's win to the U.S. Revolutionary War's "shot heard 'round the world" in Concord, Massachusetts, in April 1775. McCain said the message was clear: "No more business as usual in Washington. Stop this unsavory sausage-making process."

White House officials acknowledged that one of the lessons learned was the intensity of voter anger, but they said it wasn't so much with Obama as with Washington's failures in general and with the moribund economy.

"There are messages here. We hear those messages," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said in an interview with cable news channel MSNBC. "There is a general sense of discontent about the economy. And there is a general sense of discontent about this town. That's why we were elected."

Added press secretary Robert Gibbs: "There's a tremendous amount of anger and frustration about where people are economically...I think that's what's ultimately going to define the coming political battles."

They downplayed the notion that the vote was an indictment of health care reform. But Axelrod said that officials will "take into account" what voters said. He added, "It's not an option simply to walk away from a problem that's only going to get worse."

Meanwhile, some Democrats called the loss a wake-up call, reports CBS News correspondent Chief White House Correspondent Chip Reid.

"Now's the time for the leaders of Congress and for the president to have a moment when they say, you know what, we get the message," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D - NY).

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Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Obama has a new opportunity for bipartisanship.

"The president ought to take this as a message to recalibrate how he wants to govern and if he wants to govern from the middle we'll meet him there," he said.

Brown said he was heading to Washington on Thursday, although it was unclear how quickly he would be seated. Some Democrats said there should be no further action on health care reform until that happens. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Brown would be sworn in immediately.

Brown's addition to the upper chamber gives Republicans the votes to successfully stall health care or any other major issue from reaching the floor. Both houses have passed a version of the health care reform program, but are now in the process of negotiating major differences into a single bill that would need to pass in both the Senate and House before Obama could sign it into law.

Polls show that the health care overhaul has the support of a diminishing minority of voters, a fact that - along with Brown's upset win - could produce even more skittishness among moderate Democrats as they face an anti-incumbent mood ahead of congressional elections in November.

Even so, Brown said he did not see his victory as a referendum on Obama's first year in office.

"It's bigger than that," he said. "I just focused on what I did, which is to talk about the issues - terror, taxes and the health care plan."

But that may understate the disaffection with the Obama agenda among voters caught in one of the deepest economic downturns since the 1930s Great Depression.

And it turned politics in Massachusetts upside down. Just 14 months ago, Obama carried the state by 26 percentage points over Republican John McCain, and Brown will assume a seat Kennedy, who died of brain cancer in August, and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, held for over 50 years.

Brown will finish Kennedy's term, facing re-election in 2012.

Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele said Americans were breathing "a sigh of relief" over the potential derailing of the health care bill.

But David Plouffe, who directed Obama's presidential campaign, rejected calls to scrap the bill. "We have a good health care plan," he said. "We need to pass that. We have to lead."