Massachusetts political watchers are abuzz with speculation concerning the United States Senate seat occupied for the past five years by neoliberal Democrat Paul E. Tsongas.
The senator's surprise decision not to seek reelection in November may spur a frantic scramble for position by more than a handful of would-be successors, especially within his party.
Although the Bay State primary is still eight months away, the senator's move comes none too soon for his possible successors. Nomination papers, which will become available Feb. 14, must be filed by May 8.
Although no formal declarations are likely to be heard for several weeks, possible Democratic contenders include State Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti, former Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III, former Boston Mayor Kevin H. White, US Rep. Edward J. Markey, US Rep. James M. Shannon, former Gov. Edward J. King, and Secretary of State Michael J. Connolly.
On the Republican side, Raymond Shamie, the millionaire businessman who unsuccessfully sought to topple US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) in the 1982 election, several weeks ago announced his intention to try again for the Senate. His campaign strategy, which had been directed substantially against Senator Tsongas, must now shift.
In light of the Tsongas decision to retire for health reasons, Mr. Shamie now may find himself facing stiffer competition for the Republican nomination.
Names of potential Republican aspirants include US Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret M. Heckler; Elliot L. Richardson, who served in several federal cabinet posts under two GOP presidents; Francis W. Hatch Jr., a former minority leader in the Massachusetts House of Representatives; and former state Sen. William L. Saltonstall.
Regardless of who the GOP senatorial nominee might be, he or she can find little solace from voter registration figures - Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 3 to 1 throughout the state. Republicans and independents together, however, outnumber Democrats.
Senator Tsongas, whose ascent on the political ladder began on the Lowell City Council and included two terms in the US House from the Bay State's Fifth District, won his current seat in 1978 by toppling Republican Edward W. Brooke, the nation's only black US senator this century.
A try for the senatorial seat might be particularly appealing to Attorney General Bellotti, a man whose political ambitions have for some time extended beyond his current office, which he has held for the past decade. He has a strong organization of loyalists and over the years has had a less-than-modest nest egg in his campaign coffers.
Former Mayor White, whose 16 years in the Boston executive chair ended earlier this month, also has a strong political support team. He has long eyed higher office: In 1970 he was the Democratic nominee for governor, and in 1972 he was considerated as a running mate for Democratic presidential nominee George -McGovern.
Former Governor King, a conservative and an outspoken supporter of President Reagan's fiscal policies, was unseated by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in the 1982 Democratic primary.
Former Lieutenant Governor O'Neill, the son of US House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, was a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1982 but dropped out of the campaign several months before the party primary when his prospects for overtaking Mr. King and Mr. Dukakis appeared slim.
Unlike all of the other Democrats being mentioned as possible Democratic senatorial candidates, neither Representative Markey nor Representative Shannon have statewide campaign experience. It is questionable how well they are known statewide. A run for the Tsongas seat would mean they would give up a virtually certain reelection to the US House.
Mr. Connolly, now in his second four-year term as secretary of state, is a former state representative from Boston who has made little secret of his aspirations to move up the political ladder.