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COLUMN ONE : Kennedy in the Fight of His Life : Is Massachusetts senator obsolete and out of touch, or is he an indispensable resource to his state? Mitt Romney, a businessman, threatens to unseat him after 30 years in Senate.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy didn’t stay too long at the dinner in this Boston suburb last Friday night honoring the visiting prime minister of Cape Verde. But as he left the hall filled with hundreds of immigrants from the tiny island nation, Kennedy paused by the door and leaned purposefully into Salah Matteos, the evening’s master of ceremonies.

“Keep in touch,” the senior senator from Massachusetts said with a sudden urgency. “We really want--we need --your help. Help me out.”

As an assessment of his political condition, Kennedy’s plea was poignant and precise. For the first time in an electoral career that extends back three decades--into the mist of his brother Jack’s presidency--Ted Kennedy finds himself counting every vote--and battling for survival. In a season that for Democrats feels eerily like free fall, this may be the absolute floor: The possibility that a Kennedy could lose an election in Massachusetts.

That’s far from a certainty, of course. With a barrage of negative ads over the past two weeks, Kennedy has reopened a narrow lead over his articulate and energetic Republican opponent, businessman Mitt Romney, according to private polls conducted for business groups last week. But analysts on all sides agree those numbers could easily change again, and neither candidate is likely to be confident of the result until the last votes are counted.

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“This is hand to hand combat over a very small number of undecided voters, and who is going to be able to motivate their voters to get a turnout,” says veteran Democratic strategist John Sasso, who is advising Kennedy.

Both local and national currents have carried Kennedy into these unaccustomed waters. Revered and reviled as the bastion of liberalism, Massachusetts has seen a long-term cooling toward government, a weakening of Democratic loyalty--symbolized by the enormous popularity of Republican Gov. William F. Weld, who is cruising toward reelection this fall.

There is also an erosion of faith in Kennedy himself, as memories of his brothers have faded, and his own personal misadventures accumulated. “A lot of voters no longer identify with Camelot or the Kennedy mystique,” said Barbara Anderson, one of the state’s leading conservative activists.

But what has brought this slow slide in Kennedy’s standing to the precipice is the unique climate of campaign 1994. Although President Clinton remains popular in the state, dissatisfaction with Washington and the hunger for change is as powerful here as anywhere else, and Romney is hoping to ride that wave all the way to the shore.

“It’s time for a change, you know that,” Romney said as he greeted voters last Saturday at a fair in Topsfield. “He’s been there long enough.”

At 47, Romney personifies his theme: He is medium and message merged. He is slim and dark-haired, a successful businessman who neither drinks nor smokes. He has never run for public office and remains married to his high school sweetheart. Romney radiates crisp energy and confidence and looks as though life has left him entirely uncreased by reversal.

Kennedy is the opposite, an inverted Dorian Gray, bearing on his red and puffy face the signatures of a lifetime of excess, disappointment and tragedy. At his side, his new wife, Vicki, adds both ballast and vigor; but she seems even younger than her 40 years, which oddly makes him seem even older than his 62.

Kennedy still campaigns with verve and presence. As he prowled for votes and amiably cooed with babies at the Topsfield fair just minutes after Romney last weekend, he looked neither demoralized nor spent. But with a limp from a chronic back injury, and 20 pounds too many strapped around his middle, the senator is something voters here have never seen: an old Kennedy brother.

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In a way, this election is about the meaning of that fact. The candidates are arguing about whether Kennedy is tough enough on criminals and welfare recipients, and about the implications of Romney’s business record and even his religion.

Early last week, Kennedy suggested that Romney--who’s a Mormon, an exotic faith in this heavily Catholic state--should be questioned about his church’s exclusion of blacks from the priesthood until 1978. But after a firestorm of criticism from the local media--and a dramatic press conference in which Romney cited Jack Kennedy’s denunciation of religious bigotry in his 1960 presidential campaign--Ted Kennedy backed off, and issued a statement declaring that “religion should not be an issue in this campaign.”

But mostly they are arguing two sides of the same coin: whether Kennedy’s long tenure in Washington has left him obsolete and out of touch, as Romney asserts; or, as Kennedy portrays it, an indispensable local resource, with the clout to deliver both sweeping legislative accomplishments and a bounty of federal grants and projects.

“This is a classic case of a race where whoever defines the battlefield is going to win,” said Sasso.

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First elected in 1962, Kennedy has now spent more than half his life in the Senate--for better or worse, he’s the only sitting senator who can say that. Over the course of his career, Walter F. Mondale, Howard H. Baker Jr., Lloyd Bentsen, Alan Cranston and Gary Hart have all arrived in the Senate, served their time and moved on. Only three sitting senators have held their seats longer than Kennedy.

While his presidential ambitions have faded since his disastrous challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980, Kennedy has become an undeniable power in Congress, with a knack for constructing diverse alliances. Even while serving as the nonpareil target for conservative direct-mail appeals and political campaigns, Kennedy has made common cause with Dan Quayle on job training; Alan K. Simpson on immigration; Bob Dole on voting rights legislation, and Orrin G. Hatch on AIDS research and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

To admirers, Kennedy blends a firm commitment to liberal principles with a pragmatic understanding of legislative compromise. To critics like Clint Bolick, litigation director at the conservative Institute for Justice, Kennedy remains an ideologue who shrewdly advances an agenda out-of-touch with mainstream America. On one point both sides agree: Inside the Senate, Kennedy is very good at what he does.

“He is the single most successful legislator in the place,” says Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). “Teddy is viewed as the guy who has the most aggressive staff, is always able to deal with Republicans. He is the example of the quintessential legislator who, no matter how heated it gets, never lets it get personal.”

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Says Bolick: “There is no question, he is the ultimate Senate schmoozer. He is a very able negotiator who gives the appearance of making compromise while generally having a grasp of the issues superior to his opponents. There really has been no one on the Republican side who could go toe to toe with Kennedy.”

Through his career, no opponent, in fact, has damaged Kennedy as much as he has damaged himself, with a raucous personal life that seemed almost a malignant parody of the family history of unbounded license.

The 1969 accident at Chappaquiddick that claimed the life of a young campaign aide scarred Kennedy in a way that forever clouded his presidential hopes. His first marriage to Joan Kennedy ended in divorce in 1982, against a backdrop of persistent rumors of womanizing and drinking. He seemed to endanger even his Senate career on Easter weekend in 1991, when he roused his nephew and son for a late-night expedition to a Palm Beach bar--an evening that ended in the events dissected and adjudicated in the subsequent rape trial and acquittal of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith.

That fall, after sitting mute and embarrassed through the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas that turned on questions of sexual harassment, Kennedy delivered a mea culpa speech at Harvard apologizing for his behavior; the next summer, he married Victoria Reggie, a divorced Washington attorney with two young children of her own.

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With a Democrat in the White House, and more stability in his private life, Kennedy appeared sufficiently recovered that the state’s leading Republicans--starting with Weld--looked at the race and decided not to challenge him. That left the GOP with only outsiders and newcomers led by John Lakian, a businessman who had lost an earlier bid for governor; Janet Jeghelian, a radio talk show host, and Romney himself.

Romney came from a good political pedigree: His father, George Romney, served three terms as Michigan’s governor in the 1960s (he was first elected in 1962, the same year Ted Kennedy went to the Senate), ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1968 as a favorite of moderates and served in Richard Nixon’s Cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. His mother, Lenore, lost a bid for a Senate seat from Michigan in 1970.

But since moving to Boston in the early 1970s to earn business and law degrees at Harvard, Mitt Romney had kept his distance from the clubby and cutthroat world of Massachusetts politics. Instead, he concentrated on making his fortune as a management consultant with the firm Bain & Co.

In 1984, when Bain spun off a venture capital subsidiary, it placed Romney in charge. He proved to have a keen eye, and the firm prospered, with investments in rising companies like Staples Corp., the office products chain. Still in his mid-40s, Romney became a very rich man.

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It was his wife, Ann, who first suggested last fall that politics might offer a larger purpose than accumulating even more wealth; by his own account, Romney pulled the covers over his head when she initially suggested he take on Kennedy. But the idea grew on him. Weld had shown Republicans could prosper in the state; moreover, Romney felt Kennedy’s agenda had failed.

With the apostolic faith common to entrepreneurs made wealthy by their wits, he believed that unfettering markets offered a better prospect for solving society’s problems than expanding government. “Ted Kennedy has been, over 32 years, one of the leaders of a course that has not worked,” Romney insists.

When Romney decided to run, Republicans exchanged quizzical looks: “We didn’t know a single Republican when we jumped in in December,” his wife, Ann, says. As a registered independent, Romney had voted in the Democratic presidential primary in 1992 to support Paul E. Tsongas (though he backed George Bush in the general election, he says). He briefly considered running for the Senate seat as an independent as well, his wife says, before rejecting the idea as impractical.

Independence and pragmatism remained at the center of his appeal, though. (Even today, he tries to keep his distance from a national Republican Party still held in some suspicion here: He has refused to sign onto the national GOP “contract” party leaders are pushing in Washington.)

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Romney offered himself not as a conservative, but a Weld-like moderate: frugal on spending and insistent that welfare recipients work for their checks, but supporting abortion rights and gay rights and willing to ban assault weapons. Though criticizing Kennedy as soft on crime, he says he would have voted for the reworked crime bill that emerged from bipartisan negotiations last summer.

With that centrist appeal, a significant infusion of his own money and ads touting his claim that he helped to create 10,000 jobs through his business investments, Romney proved the class of the Republican field, and won an overwhelming victory in the GOP primary on Sept. 20.

At 5 the next morning, Kennedy’s campaign welcomed Romney to the big leagues with the political equivalent of an inside fastball from Red Sox ace Roger Clemens: a wave of ads attacking Romney’s business record, his campaign’s central arch.

The ads accused Romney of making $11 million over the past two years, while his largest company--Staples--"provided no health insurance to many workers.” Last week, the Kennedy campaign followed with more chin music: more ads accusing Ampad Corp. of Dallas, a company in which Bain invested, of slashing benefits, firing employees and provoking a strike at an Indiana paper plant.

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Romney has challenged the facts of these accusations. Staples, he notes, provides health insurance to all its full-time workers; only part-time workers are not covered. And, while expressing regret at the Indiana labor dispute, Romney portrays himself as a bystander: Ampad acquired the Indiana plant only last summer, he says, long after he took a leave of absence to launch his Senate campaign.

More broadly, Romney tries to enlist Kennedy’s criticism into his own indictment of the incumbent as an insulated career politician. “This is not Washington, this is the real world,” Romney says. “Out of the 50 or 60 businesses I have invested in, about three-fourths have added employment.

“If you say ‘he’s never had a company that’s laid someone off,’ that’s just silly; ‘never had a company that’s failed,’ that’s Washington talk. It’s very possible for a senator who’s never had a job in his life, never hired an employee, to say, ‘my goodness, there’s a strike.’ ”

Romney’s formulation underscores a skepticism of government Kennedy still passionately rejects. Almost alone among Democrats this year, Kennedy is running on the liberal faith that government can solve problems--large and small. His ads cite his work on programs like job retraining, Head Start, the minimum wage and student loans--and his success at raining grants and federal contracts on economically parched communities around the state.

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Everywhere he goes on the campaign trail, Kennedy matches concerns with programs as though completing a circuit. Taking to global extremes the maxim that all politics is local, he tells the gathering of Cape Verdean natives that he will fight to keep open the U.S. foreign aid office in their homeland. At a fund-raising dinner for a homeless shelter in Boston, he promises to help the organization seek funds from the new Violence Against Women act he helped to shepherd into the crime bill.

Three decades of such attention to the high and low end of legislative affairs has left Kennedy with roots in the state too deep and tangled to be easily extracted. At the homeless shelter dinner, management professor Paul Tortolani said that while he admired Romney he nonetheless planned to vote for Kennedy. “He still delivers,” he said. “It’s tough to deny that record over 32 years.”

Such comments suggest the huge task still before Kennedy’s challenger. Romney can be a compelling campaigner--on primary night he delivered a vivid call for a new direction that one Kennedy adviser described as “scary” in its effectiveness. And in conversation, he suggests an independent and creative streak--for instance, advocating the merger of the agriculture and commerce departments.

With the prize in sight for both men, the next month will test not only Kennedy’s endurance, but Romney’s reach. Kennedy is weakened; but to finally topple the surviving heir to America’s most famous political dynasty, Romney will probably have to cut deeper than he has so far. “The question changes,” says John Gorman, an independent Boston-based pollster. “It’s not just do you like Ted Kennedy. It’s do you think Mitt Romney would do a better job as senator. . . . He can’t just be the anti-Kennedy lever anymore.”

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Election Profile

A quick summary of the Massachusetts Senate race between incumbent Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Mass. voter registration:

Dems.: 41%

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GOP: 14%

Ind./Other: 45%

The Issues

Kennedy: Campaign is trying to paint Romney as a high-flying corporate speculator who’s misleading voters about his record.

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Romney: Argues Kennedy’s 32 years in the Senate have left him out of touch on issues like spending, welfare and crime.

The Candidates

Kennedy: Has spent almost his entire adult life in the Senate and ranks as one of its most influential, and liberal, members.

Romney: A venture capitalist and son of a former Michigan governor, is making his first run for public office.

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Kennedy’s Senate Race Record

Year: 1988

Who he defeated: Joseph Malone

Victory margin: 65-34%

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Year: 1982

Who he defeated: Raymond Shamie

Victory margin: 61-38%

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Year: 1976

Who he defeated: Michael S. Robertson

Victory margin: 69-29%

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Year: 1970

Who he defeated: Josiah Spaulding

Victory margin: 63-37%

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Year: 1964

Who he defeated: Howard Whitmore Jr.

Victory margin: 74-25%

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Year: 1962

Who he defeated: George C. Lodge

Victory margin: 55-42%

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Researched by D’JAMILA SALEM / Los Angeles Times

Sources: Times staff, Congressional Quarterly (voter registration figures are for 1992), Almanac of American Politics, A Guide to U.S. Elections


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