It was touch and go for much of this long, bitter campaign. But Massachusetts once again sent a Kennedy to the U.S. Senate.
Surrounded by a sea of relatives, Edward M. Kennedy called his election "a victory for those who believe we have a voice and a vote and a fighter in the U.S. Senate, who is going to fight for the interests of the middle class. Working families will know for the next six years that they have a spokesman. I will never leave their side. They will always have my vote."
Kennedy made a point of voicing his support for President and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been blamed by Republicans for the country's ills. "I am proud to stand with Bill Clinton," he said to cheers Tuesday night, "and I am proud to stand with Hillary Clinton."
In his concession speech, Kennedy's challenger, Mitt Romney said: "Our campaign for change has not ended. We're going to continue to fight for change."
With 69% of the votes counted, Kennedy had 58% of the vote and Romney 41%. A third-party candidate, Lauraleigh Dozier, had 1%
It took a fair amount of forgiving for many voters to give Kennedy a seventh term on Capitol Hill. But even to voters who professed to loathe the last surviving brother of his generation of Kennedys, the prospect of losing their link to this country's best-known political dynasty was perplexing.
"I don't know that affection is the word that describes how we feel about Kennedy here," reflected novelist James Carroll, who lives on Boston's Beacon Hill. "I think it's a connection, a deep emotional bond, for better or for worse."
But the extent of that attachment was severely tested in Kennedy's race against venture capitalist Romney.
"Kennedy pulled out all the stops on this one," said Republican state Sen. Lucille Hicks, who represents the town of Wayland, west of Boston. "He was hanging on by his toenails."
Nowhere was the contrast between the two candidates more pronounced than in their physical appearance. At 62, the white-haired Kennedy has grown so heavy that he inspired a Letterman joke: "Vote for me, the big, red-faced guy."
Romney, 47, is impossibly square-jawed and lean. His hair is dark and lustrous. When he smiles, spectators are wise to don sunglasses.
Their political philosophies are equally at odds. Kennedy all but personifies traditional liberal Democratic politics. He believes in government as a vehicle for social reform, and in recent years has proved to be a champion of causes pertaining to women and families. Romney is an inveterate capitalist who espoused a "hands-off" attitude on most questions of government intervention. He particularly faulted Democrats for poor economic policies and vowed to reverse tax hikes introduced by Democrats.
Mostly, Romney campaigned on what was a recurring theme around the country: the need for change, the need to oust tired old incumbents in favor of fresh new political blood.
Like many contests across the nation, the Kennedy-Romney race was marked as much by record spending by both candidates as by the churlish, attack-dog tone the two contenders embraced. In what proved to be the most expensive campaign in Massachusetts history, Kennedy spent $8.5 million to defend his seat. Romney's campaign cost $7 million, at least $3 million of that coming from his own pocket.
Snippish television and radio ads, in particular, featured the two men--each a multimillionaire in his own right--accusing each other of having improperly benefited from suspicious real estate or business deals.
Both candidates worked hard to package themselves. Romney presented himself as young and vital--a jogger, a faithful husband to his beautiful blonde wife and the father of five wholesome, handsome sons. A venture capitalist, he hammered away at the correlation between his success as a self-made businessman and the skills he might need in the U.S. Senate.
At first Romney's strategy and tenacity were rewarded. A month ago, polls showed the race in a dead heat.
But in recent days, surveys showed the votes tipping in Kennedy's favor. Many observers credited the shift to Kennedy's impressive showing in a pair of televised debates. The first encounter, at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, featured a concession on the part of Romney forces that allowed Kennedy staffers to bring in triple-sized lecterns designed to conceal the senator's girth. At the next meeting, at Holyoke College in the western part of the state, Romney banned lecterns, insisting that the candidates stand next to one another.
Kennedy's pre-debate campaign performance had been so sluggish that Romney--as well as many veteran political observers--probably underestimated the senator's comeback power.
"The Kennedy campaign was asleep," said longtime Democratic strategist Paul Nace. "They probably underestimated the vulnerability of the senator in Massachusetts, and they overestimated the knowledgeability of people. You know, Ted is very easy to take for granted. He's always been there."
But in the debates, Nace and others said, Kennedy surprised his opponent by surging back.
"The expectations of his performance were very, very low," Nace said. "You had the right-wing radio freaks trashing him as this bumbling idiot. Well, anyone who debates on the floor of the U.S. Senate five days a week knows how to debate."
But it took more than a win in the debates to accomplish a Kennedy turnaround. John Gorman, president of Opinion Dynamics in Cambridge, pointed out that a full three years after the family's most recent scandal--when his nephew William Kennedy Smith was charged with rape at the family's compound in Palm Beach, Fla., and Sen. Kennedy was described as carousing with his nephew and running around the mansion in his underwear--"Kennedy had a 2-to-1 negative rating in this state." Only 35% of voters, Gorman said, gave Kennedy a positive rating.
But through "a combination of work, remarriage and penance," Kennedy managed to get back in the race, Gorman said. Two days before the election, Gorman gave Kennedy a 5-to-4 favorable/unfavorable rating.
But maybe Kennedy's eleventh-hour strength came back to what novelist Carroll called the storybook quality of the Kennedy dynasty, and the "grandeur" of its story.
"What was so depressing was the prospect of his being humiliated," Carroll said.