THE last time Ted Kennedy had a close race in Massachusetts, gas was selling for 31 cents a gallon, and an obscure British band called the Beatles had just recorded a song called ``Love Me Do.'' That was 1962. Twenty-six years later, Senator Kennedy's Republican opponent is an articulate young Harvard grad from a working-class background named Joe Malone. He could give the senator a run. Still, polls show Mr. Kennedy far ahead. Few expect him to be sweating much come Nov. 8.
So why is he campaigning so hard?
In recent elections, Kennedy has coasted. This time, the night he announced, supporters held 160 fund-raising house parties around the state. Democrats talk about getting ``blitzed'' by his direct-mail appeals.
``It appears he's going to do some old-fashioned campaigning,'' says Loretta Roache, formerly on the State Board of Education and a Democratic Party activist. ``He hasn't done that in years.''
Kennedy's campaign manager is coy on the subject. ``We want to create a good operation for this year and the future'' is about all he'll say. Which is understandable. The manager - co-manager, really, with sister Kara - is Ted Kennedy Jr., the senator's son, who is widely expected to make use of this operation himself before long.
Ted Jr. considered running for the House seat Tip O'Neill vacated in 1986. But he stepped aside for Joe Jr., his older cousin and Bobby Kennedy's son. At the Democratic convention, Senator Kennedy served as host to the entire Massachusetts delegation on a train ride around Atlanta. As he pressed flesh with his guests, Kara and Ted Jr. were conspicuously by his side.
For his part, the senior senator is probably fortunate to have this family link to his younger constituents. With presidential ambitions pretty much behind him, he has emerged in Washington as a true Senate power. Yet back home, he is at just that stage in his career at which political antennas developed in previous decades can miss new signals coming across the generational divide.
More than a sixth of Kennedy's constituents were not even born when he was first elected in 1962. For large numbers of college students today, the New Frontier is not the Peace Corps, but investment banking. The hearty band of Kennedy loyalists, dating back to JFK, is getting a bit long in tooth.
Which puts the younger Kennedys into the role of translating their father's brand of liberalism to a different political world.
In this, the two seem unfazed. To the contrary, after eight years of a Republican administration, they see the pendulum coming back their way.
Kara, who seems to be the poll-watcher of the two, cites concern for family issues as an example. ``My father has always been there for children,'' she said in an interview. ``Education. Health insurance. All these things he's been fighting for seem to be [on the agenda] again.
``We have George Bush now talking about day care,'' Ted adds.
``And he's talking about education,'' Kara rejoins.
There's a lot of sibling byplay between the two. Sometimes they build on each other's points. Sometimes they administer a good-natured needle.
Kara, the older, is irreverent and a bit droll. In dungarees and New Balance (made in Massachusetts) running shoes, and with a totally unaffected manner, she could be Kara from UMass Boston, rather than the Kara Kennedy, a persona she seems instinctively to avoid.
Ted Jr., by contrast is the spokesman. He's a scaled-down version of his father, the same barrel chest (that seems destined to fill many a banquet hall), a face that, in profile, has an uncanny resemblance to the senator's. Ted Jr. combines his father's hearty good nature, with a reflectiveness that suggests he has thought things through for himself.
The difficulties he has faced - his father's well-publicized embroilments, his mother's alcoholism, his losing a leg to cancer - seem to have left him with a sturdy center of gravity. ``I think he is the best of the lot,'' says Anne Beaudry, a lobbyist and Democratic activist in the state, speaking of the various Kennedy offspring, and reflecting a view widely held here.
Both Kara and Ted speak proudly of their father and what he has represented in American public life. Ted carries the conversation, Kara interjects factual details and ironic asides.
The first six years of the Reagan administration were tough ones for the senator, they say. ``It was very lonely for him when it was a Republican-controlled Senate,'' Ted Jr. says. ``He was taking on a lot of this neoconservatism by himself.''
But they don't flinch from the dreaded ``L-word.'' ``I think it's a positive thing,'' Ted says of the liberal tag. ``I'm out every single day talking to people. People want government to be more involved in solving the needs of society.''
``At least in Massachusetts,'' Kara interjects. ``Not all the way across the board.''
Kara is candid regarding the new climate. When the campaign started organizing on college campuses, they tried working through Young Democrat clubs. They found that not many of these exist. ``It's amazing,'' Kara says. ``You usually have to go through student government instead.''
Male yuppies are the senator's toughest sell, she says. And Ted Jr. adds a personal note to the blas'e attitude of young voters. ``One in 10 18-year-olds votes,'' he says. ``And my Uncle Bobby worked so hard for that....''
To young Kennedy, politics is a way out of yuppie self-absorption. ``I think it's something everybody should do,'' he says. ``It's easy to become very insulated. I went to a private school. A lot of people I went to school with I don't think had ever been to a ghetto. Or to a paper mill. It's an eye-opening experience.''
``My two uncles, what their lives were really devoted to is that it's OK to be idealistic,'' Ted continues. ``I think I see a little bit of that coming back now.''
Ted has trouble articulating a difference between his own politics and those of his father. His battle against disease has done for him what the Vietnam war did for the previous generation, bringing the need for social involvement close to home. He has been active in the ``disability rights'' movement, and has an organization in Boston called Facing the Challenge, which promotes the ability of ``physically challenged'' people to participate fully at work and other areas of life.
From his standpoint, today is the 1960s all over again. ``People with disabilities have been more involved than ever before in the political process,'' he says. ``I've been involved in a movement where I see a lot more activism.''
This work has won him many admirers. ``He didn't have to take this issue on,'' says Judy Heumann of the World Institute on Disability in Berkeley, Calif. ``But he's taken it on in a very personal way, and I admire him for it.''
Ms. Heumann, who gets around in a wheelchair, says Ted is not a glory hound. ``He makes it a point to speak to people like myself to check out his opinions and be collaborative,'' she says. ``He's got a good brain and a good heart.''
``I guess you just have to get sparked,'' Ted says, warming to the subject. ``It's almost like a tragic hero in a Greek play, you almost have to hit rock bottom before you can empower yourself,'' he says, using a favorite activist buzzword.
``Hitting bottom'' is a basic concept in Alcoholics Anonymous. Ted Jr.'s mother, Joan, has been involved in AA. Ted doesn't mention that. But he does think that societies are just like individuals in this regard.
``It takes syringes washing up on the beach'' to get people to pay attention, he says.