THE US Senate race between Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) and wealthy political rookie James Rappaport (R) has, as George Bush might put it, ``gone ballistic.'' A Rappaport television campaign ad, pulsing with music similar to that from the movie ``Jaws,'' links Senator Kerry to the state's favorite bogeyman, Gov. Michael Dukakis, and claims, ``He's back.''
Kerry campaign ads use hula music and cow moos to jab Mr. Rappaport's hotel deals in Hawaii and the family's cattle-breeding farm in Vermont.
Months ago, Kerry was considered a shoo-in. As chairman of a foreign relations subcommittee, the junior senator pushed a reluctant Reagan administration to take action against President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. He also pushed for a hard-line stand against Latin American drug kingpins, an effort that helped lead to the downfall of Panama's strongman, Gen. Manuel Noriega.
But anti-incumbent fervor seems to have struck this state hard. Voters are fed up with the deteriorating economy, the state's ever-worsening fiscal woes, and the perceived passivity with which Governor Dukakis has handled the problems.
A citizen's initiative to roll back taxes and fees has been popular, although some polls have it declining, and voters rejected their parties' choices in the primary.
Rappaport jumped into negative campaigning back in March, claiming Kerry hasn't passed a single piece of legislation with his name on it, has missed Banking Committee hearings, and has been more interested in Nicaragua than his own state.
Kerry's campaign focused on issues until after the primary, when he, too, joined in the mudslinging. A staff aide says, ``He said he wasn't going to be Willie Horton-ed.'' Mr. Horton, a black convict who raped a white woman while on furlough, became Dukakis's Achilles' heel in the '88 presidential campaign.
Kerry questions Rappaport's business dealings and recent residence in Hawaii, his refusal to release tax forms, and his accepting an agricultural farm subsidy in Vermont designed for small farmers while at the same time railing against such subsidies.
``Kerry has raised the specter of a particularly privileged elite group utilizing various kinds of mechanisms to serve private purposes while at the same time attacking Kerry for robbing the public through excessive taxes and public spending,'' says Paul Watanabe, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
A recent Tufts University poll shows them running neck and neck. ``What I think is going on is a strong anti-incumbent fervor and Rappaport is doing an extremely good job of tapping it,'' says Kent Portney, an associate professor of political science at Tufts. ``Since there's no incumbent in the governor's race, Kerry becomes the incumbent target at the state level.''
Analysts say the GOP needs a candidate with the money to run a well-financed campaign as well as one with a clean character.
Rappaport has the funds. Even after losing the party's nomination, he put $1.7 million of his own money into the primary and won anyway.
Kerry, even with one of the top 10 war chests in the country and a personal family fortune, is being outspent rapidly. Kerry doesn't accept political-action committee money.
But Rappaport has never held elective office. He's chairman of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Committee, a group that fights higher taxes. He's got the backing of his father, Jerome Rappaport, a behind-the-scenes politico in the state, who made a fortune building a giant apartment complex that helped wipe out an entire neighborhood. Much of James Rappaport's business dealings are linked with his father, and some analysts wonder if the father is really running the show.
``His record is really his weakest part of his makeup,'' says Mr. Watanabe. ``It's not a record he can fall back on or defend or promote.''
Rappaport is a fiscal conservative who supports the death penalty and drug testing, but also is a moderate on social issues such as abortion and tax credits for child care.