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Candidates for Kennedy's Senate seat try to carry his mantle

For three of the four candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, the temptation to try to position themselves as heir to the Kennedy legacy has proved too sweet to resist.

By Tracey D. SamuelsonContributor / December 8, 2009

Candidates in the Democratic primary in the race for the US Senate seat left open by the death of Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, from the left, Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca, Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley, City Year co-founder Alan Khazei, and US Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., chat and check their notes before the start of a televised debate at the WCVB-TV Channel 5 station, in Needham, Mass., Tuesday.

Steven Senne/AP

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To run a campaign based on Kennedy’s legacy or not?

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That’s the question that the Democratic candidates vying to fill the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat have faced over the course of the three-month special election.

For three of the four candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, the temptation to try to position themselves as heir to the Kennedy legacy proved too sweet to resist. They’ve evoked the “liberal lion” in debates, television ads, and campaign rhetoric.

But that strategy may be flawed.

“Voters are not terribly sentimental about who came before,” says Dan Payne, a Massachusetts-based Democratic media consultant. “They want to start the political season fresh.”

Moreover, Senator Kennedy’s wife and sons have refused to endorse any candidate, complicating efforts to appear as his chosen replacement.

The fresh-start strategy may have benefited state Attorney General Martha Coakley, the front-runner heading into Tuesday’s primary.

“Coakley has her own identity,” says Mr. Payne, noting that Ms. Coakley is the only Democratic candidate to previously conduct a statewide campaign. “She doesn’t really need to borrow from Ted Kennedy.”

But Coakley’s competitors – Rep. Michael Capuano, Alan Khazei, and Stephen Pagliuca – have all sought to convince voters that they had a relationship with Kennedy before his death – a relationship that would benefit them in the Senate.

“Ted Kennedy taught me that Washington’s a tough town where you have to stand and fight for what really matters,” Representative Capuano said in a recent television ad, a photo of him with Kennedy on the screen. “I have stood with him, voting against the Iraq war and against President Bush’s attacks on Social Security, our values, and civil liberties.”

Mr. Khazei has talked about his work with Kennedy on City Year, a nationwide community-service program that Khazei co-founded, and he pushed for passage of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.

“I loved Ted Kennedy,” Khazei said in a Dec. 1 interview on WGBH, a Boston public-television station. “He was amazing. I wouldn’t be sitting here today, having done what I’ve been able to do, without Ted Kennedy. He discovered me and City Year.”

Mr. Pagliuca, a self-financed candidate and co-owner of the Boston Celtics, has promised to vote for healthcare reform and “fight for Senator Kennedy’s dream.”

He was the first candidate to advertise on television and began evoking Kennedy early: “People are hurting in Massachusetts, and we’ve lost a great friend – perhaps the greatest senator in the history of our state and nation. No one could fill his shoes, but the work goes on.”

The size and impact of Kennedy’s legacy are exactly why it’s difficult for any candidates to measure up. “Ted Kennedy was such a giant in Massachusetts politics that it’s a little like asking who’s going to be the next Larry Bird,” says Payne. “Voters realize there isn’t a natural heir here.”

See also:

Far-left Democrats rule race for Kennedy's Senate seat

Massachusetts’ would-be senators roil healthcare abortion debate
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