Kennedy in Toughest Fight Ever

End-game after 32 years may be possible with anti-incumbent mood in Bay State

EDWARD Kennedy's 32-year reign over one of Massachusetts' seats in the United States Senate is only a few thousand Stewarts away from an uncamelot-like end.

``I think he's been there too long,'' says Stewart, a soft-spoken Boston resident who chose not to give his last name. ``At 84 I can remember what he has and hasn't done. I think a change would be good.''

For the first time in his career, Ted Kennedy is fighting for his political life. The country's strong anti-incumbent and anti-Clinton sentiment has spread to Massachusetts with a vengeance, and older voters that could be swayed in the past by the Kennedy mystique are no longer a sure thing.

Observers say the tenuous plight of the leader of Massachusetts' most celebrated Democratic family and the large lead in polls of Republican Gov. William Weld reflect a sea change in traditionally Democrat-dominated Massachusetts politics.

``The electorate in Massachusetts has changed substantially over the last ten years,'' says Lou DiNatale, a senior fellow at the McCormack Institute for Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. ``They're a lot of people who've moved in from other states and a lot of young people who don't care who Kennedy is.''

Massachusetts voters, just like their counterparts nationwide, are increasingly cynical about politics, observers say. Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professorat Boston University and political consultant, says which generation turns out at the polls will be a crucial factor in Kennedy's race.

``I'd be curious to know what percentage of the electorate is going to be over 40, because I think they think fondly of him and associate him with Camelot,'' says Mr. Berkovitz. ``People under 40 associate him with Chappaquidick.''

Kennedy has been dogged by a series of dismal local media polls. Two taken late last week showed him in a statistical dead heat with GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

Republicans across the country are drooling. ``When [Republicans] sit around and think about their dearest fantasies, they dream of beating Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Insitute in Washington. ``If Romney does it, he will instantly become a national player in the Republican party.''

Romney - a self-made venture capitalist millionaire and son of former Michigan governor and presidential candidate George Romney -

trounced his opponent in the Sept. 20 primary.

Running as a pro-business fiscal conservative who is tough on crime, Romney differs with Kennedy on nearly every issue except abortion. Romney has said he is pro-abortion rights with some restrictions, but has been criticized for not being more specific on abortion and other issues.

``Right now Mitt Romney is essentially a pretty face,'' Berkovitz says. ``He needs to prove that he's a substantive candidate.'' Analysts say the campaign, which has largely been fought over the television airwaves, has entered a crucial two-week phase. Before the Sept. 20 primary, Romney's ads ignored his Republican opponent and concentrated on portraying Kennedy as an ultra-liberal and out of touch incumbent, boosting Roomney in the polls.

The day after the primary Kennedy launched the first negative ads of his political career, portraying Romney as a 1980s corporate raider who made millions by eliminating jobs and failing to give his workers health insurance. If Romney can respond effectively and present himself as a credible candidate, he may pull off the upset.

Kennedy so far has raised an estimated $6 million, one of the largest campaign war chests in the country. First lady Hillary Clinton hosted a very public fundraiser for Kennedy last week in Boston, while President Clinton will host a fundraiser for Kennedy in Virginia.

Aides to Romney, who is expected to use large amount of his own money in the race, say they expect to spend up to $8 million. To survive, analyst say Kennedy needs to stand by his liberal positions and campaign hard, bringing along his new wife. ``What his early ads really did was portray him as a family man'' and that was good, Berkovitz says, ``not Ted Kennedy the bloated bon vivant around town.''

Schneider says voters know Kennedy too well for him to change his image. ``It would be absurd for him try to prove to people he is a moderate,'' Schneider says. ``He stands for certain things and that's his strong point.''

In the race for governor, analyst say incumbent Republican Weld remains popular largely because of what he hasn't done.

In another local media poll taken last week, Weld - a fiscal conservative who is for pro-abortion rights - held a commanding 58 percent to 26 percent lead over Democratic challenger State Rep. Mark Roosevelt.

Roosevelt beat his two Democratic rivals in the Sept. 20 primary by wide margins and is criticizing Weld for being too laid back, supporting casino gambling, and granting campaign donors large state contracts.

Weld's only weakness may be the alleged ethics issue, since voters seem happy with the governor's ``steer, not row'' philosophy of government, analysts say, after former governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis left office with massive deficits and tax increases. Weld has delivered balance budgets and most importantly no tax increases.

``A governor of Massachusetts who doesn't raise taxes is a Massachusetts miracle,'' says Schneider. ``There's a strong anti-government mood in the country right now, and Weld is enjoying the fruits of it.''

Whether that anti-government sentiment will extend to Kennedy remains to be seen. Stewart, the Boston voter, believes beating a severely weakened Kennedy and the Massachusetts Democratic political machine may be too good to be true.

``I'd like to see [challenger] Romney win,'' Stewart says. ``But I think the odds are against it.''

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