Confetti cascaded down from the balcony. Politicians beamed, supporters roared, and a band blared music from the 1950s. It seemed like a typical primary-night victory party. But for the crowd here and for observers around the nation, it was more than a celebration: It was the christening of the next Kennedy generation.
Flanked by members of his family, Joseph P. Kennedy II flashed a toothy grin Tuesday night as he accepted the Democratic nomination for the United States congressional seat being vacated by House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. Despite a late challenge by state Sen. George Bachrach, ``Young Joe'' swamped his closest rival in the 10-candidate race by a 52-to-30 percent margin.
The curly-headed Kennedy, the oldest son of the late Robert Kennedy, is not the first of his generation to stride toward Congress. Last week, his older sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, got the nod to face Rep. Helen Delich Bentley (R) in Maryland's Second District. (See Page 6 for a roundup of other primaries.)
But while Ms. Townsend faces a tough fight in November, Kennedy is virtually assured of victory. It's not that his Republican opponent, business consultant Clark C. Abt, had any trouble in his landslide primary victory. It's just that Massachusetts' Eighth Congressional District is one of the most heavily Democratic in the nation. In 1984, Ronald Reagan mustered only 36 percent here. And today, Democrats in the district outnumber Republicans 10 to 1.
The ratio was nearly the same when voters here sent Joe's uncle, John F. Kennedy, to Washington in 1946. But the district, which spans the blue-collar wards in East Boston and Somerville and the academic, ``new collar'' pockets of Cambridge and Belmont, has changed gradually over the past 40 years. Pollsters say the rift between working-class Democrats and wealthier, better-educated liberals has widened here, just as it has across the nation.
Does that mean the Eighth District race reflected a deeper national tension between ``new idea'' Democrats and party traditionalists?
Not at all, according to most political experts.
Joe Kennedy and George Bachrach ``do reflect the twin bases of Democratic support,'' concedes Ann Lewis, director of Americans for Democratic Action in Washington. Recent poll results show a clean break: Mr. Bachrach appealed to younger, wealthier liberals, while Kennedy gained most of his support from elderly, blue-collar voters.
But the split in allegiance here ``doesn't translate very well to the national party,'' says Mrs. Lewis, the sister of US Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.
``You would make a serious error if you extrapolated the Eighth District onto the entire country,'' agrees Kirk O'Donnell, a former counsel to Speaker O'Neill and now the president of the Center for National Policy in Washington. Mr. O'Donnell and other observers consider the differences between Bachrach and Kennedy as a matter of local politics and personality, not national issues.
From outside the district, they say, the candidates' deep shades of liberalism are almost indistinguishable.
``What this is all about is a race for which ultraliberal is going to be elected to be one of the 20 most liberal members of Congress,'' says local political consultant Bob Schaeffer. ``Only in this district could a Kennedy be considered a conservative candidate.''
Joe Kennedy, in fact, seems something of a mixture. He appeals to a traditional Democratic voting bloc, analysts say, but shares some of the more moderate views of leading ``new idea'' Democrats like Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri.
Kennedy's vision of government as a catalyst for industry stems from his experience with Citizen's Energy Corporation (CEC), Boston, a company he founded seven years ago. Designed to use profits from the sale of oil products to provide cheap heating fuel for the poor and elderly, CEC has expanded into energy conservation and health care. Last year, Kennedy says, it piled up $1 billion in sales.
The nonprofit company, a mix of 1960s liberalism and '80s pragmatism, served as a launchpad for Kennedy's campaign. It also backed up his claim that he was running on more than the family name.
Throughout the race, Joe played down his famous family. But several days before the election, he invoked the memory of his father at a crucial moment in a television interview.
Bachrach, charging hard after polls indicated he had nearly caught the front-runner, confronted Kennedy about his support of the Libyan air attack and the rumor that CEC dealt with Libyan oil companies.
``Let me explain to you something about Libya,'' Kennedy responded. ``Libya offered Sirhan Sirhan asylum after he killed my father and for you to think for one second that Citizens Energy, or Citizens Resources Corporation, would have anything to do with oil coming out of Libya is just totally off base.''
Perhaps that timely retort helps explains Joe's wide margin of victory. Or maybe the vote hinged more on the endorsement Kennedy received from the district's beloved Tip O'Neill.
But there's no doubt that the district has had a legacy of big names in Washington. In its 44-year history, voters have sent only three representatives to Congress: James Michael Curley, John F. Kennedy, and Tip O'Neill. This year, they wanted another big name.
``The voters have a choice between a Volkswagen that gets 30 miles to the gallon and a Porsche that gets 30 miles to the gallon,'' said one local pol before the election. ``Joe Kennedy is the Porsche.''