Boston — Nowhere in the Northeast are the economic programs of President Reagan more of a 1982 campaign issue than in Massachusetts, the home turf of Democratic US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
The public's attitude toward Reaganomics may have little or no impact on the reelection of the veteran senator, one of the President's sharpest critics. But concern about the economy could substantially shape the balloting for Congress in the state's Fourth District.
Battling for the seat are two candidates who not only hold quite different views concerning the President's approach to strengthening the economy, but have voted accordingly in the House over the past nearly two years.
US Rep. Margaret M. Heckler, an eight-term Republican, has voted down the line for key money measures initiated or supported by the White House. In contrast, Democratic US Rep. Barney Frank, her Nov. 2 foe, has been equally consistent in his opposition to Reaganomics.
Although the Massachusetts jobless rate, at 7.2 percent, is significantly lower than the 10.1 percent for the nation as a whole, the Fourth District contains one of the state's deepest pockets of joblessness.
With 15 percent of the work force idle in the aging mill town of Fall River and Democrats blaming the high unemployment on Reaganomics, Mrs. Heckler faces a particularly tough challenge, at least in the heavily Democratic southern end of the district. But the GOP congresswoman, since winning her House seat 16 years ago, has consistently done well in the textile center and longtime Democratic stronghold.
Mr. Frank, a former four-term state representative who won his current congressional seat two years ago, is by far the best organized and best funded opponent Mrs. Heckler has faced. He is also the most articulate and least timid, thus forcing her onto the political defensive.
The hard-fought tussle stems from last year's congressional redistricting, necessitated by the loss of a House seat. Initially it appeared that the Republican incumbent held a big advantage over the freshman Democrat, since the newly shaped district comprised mostly areas she has served and only two communities from the current Frank district.
Through 10 months of vigorous campaigning, however, he appears to have made substantial headway toward getting known throughout the new district, and in the process has labeled Reaganomics as a failure and linked his Republican opponent to it.
Mrs. Heckler's strategy, too, has been to put her challenger on the defensive by increasingly dwelling on his political record, including some of his more controversial proposals during his state legislative days.
A Heckler defeat would probably leave once-dominant Massachusetts Republicans with only one of the state's 11 US House seats - that of Silvio O. Conte, the veteran lawmaker from the First District.
In the campaign for the US Senate, challenger Raymond Shamie appears to be facing more than an uphill push to come even close to Democratic incumbent Kennedy, who has been largely ignoring him.
Although taking nothing for granted, the senator's campaign is focusing on his record and political popularity, rather than attempting to answer any of the charges Mr. Shamie has leveled at him. Shamie, a millionaire industrialist and, like Mr. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, has plowed several hundred thousand dollars of his own money into his campaign.
Much of Kennedy's campaign is directed toward touching base with Democrats and others who have supported him in the past and at the same time welding stronger ties with as broad a cross section of Democratic leaders, including those whose help might be needed in a future bid for president.
Among those helping boost the senator's reelection is former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale who, long before this time next year, may be vying with him for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.
In the hotly contested Democratic gubernatorial primary duel between Gov. Edward J. King and former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, Senator Kennedy both endorsed and campaigned with the latter. In the process, however, he displeased some King boosters who clearly would have preferred that the senator retain his usual neutrality, at least outwardly, until after the party's gubernatorial nominee was chosen.
Only once since his arrival on the Massachusetts political scene two decades ago has the younger brother of former President John F. Kennedy polled less than 59 percent of the vote. Six years ago, in winning his current term, the senator bested his GOP foe with nearly 67 percent of the vote. A significantly narrower victory over Shamie would not help boost his political stock nationally should he again seek the Democratic presidential nomination.
Regardless of how strongly Senator Kennedy runs and whether the Fourth District seat goes to Mrs. Heckler or Mr. Frank, the Massachusetts governorship is expected to go to Democrat Dukakis. The former state chief executive's stiffest opposition is from moderate Republican John W. Sears. Mr. Sear's prospects may be dimmed by two newcomers, independent Francis P. Rich and Libertarian Rebecca Shipman, both of whom are going after anti-Dukakis votes.