EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — OTHER than the occasional honk of approval, reactions can be dramatic to campaigning State Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) as he waves to drivers at this busy East Providence, R.I., highway intersection.
In one instance, a station wagon pulls up and a freckle-faced boy jumps out to get the candidate's autograph.
At another time, a driver leans dangerously far from his car's steering wheel to shout at the candidate from the passenger window: ``Get a job!''
Though 27-year-old Representative Kennedy - son of US Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts - carries the name of a powerful political family, his association to it has been both an advantage and a liability.
Family clout helped carve him a niche in the Rhode Island Legislature in 1988, and it now is paving the way for him to run a formidable campaign for Congress this fall for the seat to be vacated by US Rep. Ron Machtley (R).
``Has my family name helped me? Of course it's a big help to me,'' says Kennedy, who faces only nomimal opposition in the Sept. 13 primary. ``I'm the first to acknowledge it, and my colleagues who have supported me will readily acknowledge that, yes, I can certainly take advantage of the opportunity.''
But the campaign trail hasn't been free of bumps. If he's not blamed for never having a job outside of being a state representative - a part-time position that pays $300 a year - he is labeled the ``kid'' or the ``congressboy'' because he's so young. Furthermore, in this open election in Rhode Island's First Congressional District, the liberal Kennedy faces a formidable opponent, Republican Party nominee Kevin Vigilante, a GOP moderate and primary-care physician. Mr. Vigilante has raised approximately $300,000, about half that of his opponent.
Polls show that Kennedy is leading, with Dr. Vigilante not too far behind. A Brown University survey conducted in July showed Kennedy favored by 49 percent compared with Dr. Vigilante's 27 percent.
``It really is shaping up as a close race,'' says Darrell West, political science professor at Brown University. ``Kennedy is well known and Vigilante is really not very well known at this juncture. But to be that close ... to the Kennedy name this early in the campaign suggests he is a serious candidate.''
Republican Valerie Southern, who is not expected to draw as much support on the GOP side, is also running in the primary.
Of Irish-Italian ancestry, Vigilante says his upbringing was modest. He paid his way through college by working in steel mills. As a physician, he has treated women prison inmates and served on the board of the Rape Crisis Center in Providence.
Vigilante takes a more moderate approach to universal health care than President Clinton's plan, which ``creates this enormous bureaucracy,'' he says.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the physician faults the president's plan because the employer mandates would strain small businesses and lead to tremendous job loss, he says. He also favors lower taxes, a balanced-budget amendment, and term limits for office holders.
Kennedy, on other hand, says his ties to Washington will open doors. With a corps of state leaders backing him, Kennedy also draws support and funding from high-powered Washington interest groups and political leaders. In January, US House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri campaigned for him in Providence.
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 supporters showed up at his campaign announcement in May.
Kennedy's political debut began in New Jersey back in 1988, when he won a campaign for state representative as a sophomore at Providence College. He was elected to the seat again in 1990 and 1992.
Later, as chairman of the House Rules Committee, Kennedy fought against party insiders to initiate government reforms. One of the most significant reforms was the passage of a bill allowing more time to review the budget before a vote is taken, a measure directed at curbing the power of special interests.
Kennedy acknowledges he made enemies in his effort to clean up government in this state historically prone to political scandal. ``You judge a person by the friends they keep. You also judge a person by the enemies they make. On that score, I think I have made the right enemies,'' he says. The Rhode Island legislator takes the side of President Clinton on several other issues. On health care, for instance, Kennedy is less concerned with employer mandates and small businesses than the overall goal of universal coverage.
``The big issue,'' says Professor West, ``is going to be Bill Clinton because Patrick Kennedy is good friends with Clinton and has sided with Clinton on major issues: health care, the crime bill, and other things.''