WITH his distinctive crest of snowy hair and New England locution, Sen. Edward Kennedy has come to personify America's liberal establishment.
But if voters in Massachusetts dump the five-term Democrat, as polls suggest they might, Senator Kennedy will fast become an example of something else: What happens to political stalwarts when the electorate evolves.
Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1 statewide, but the ranks of unenrolled voters and independents have burgeoned to 60 percent in some suburban counties.
Unlike their urban counterparts, these voters are less tolerant of taxes and social spending, and more apt to trod over party lines.
``People in Massachusetts are much more comfortable being Republicans than ever before,'' says Bill Vernon, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party. ``It used to be something you wouldn't mention at a party, now it's not that exotic.''
The electoral shift is largely a function of demographics.
In the last 30 years, Democrats have watched their blue-collar urban power base erode, analysts say. Jobs in manufacturing have fallen from 33 percent to only 16 percent of the total work force, and the percentage of population in cities over 150,000 has declined from 23 to just 15 percent.
Meanwhile, growth in suburban areas and the service economy, particularly financial services, has attracted younger, more affluent white-collar workers who have squeezed into the suburbs. These new voters, many of them from other states, don't identify with the liberal traditions of old.
``These trends bode well for the [GOP],'' Mr. Vernon says. ``We should continue to grow.''
Indeed, a glance at the candidacies of Kennedy and the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state Rep. Mark Roosevelt, reveal a picture of a party in limbo.
``The stark differences between these races are indicative of the changing nature of politics in Massachusetts,'' says Lou DiNatale, senior fellow at the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. ``Kennedy is stuck with running on his record, while Roosevelt is a newcomer trying to redefine the party. Neither one is drawing much enthusiasm from voters.''
Polls show Kennedy running two points ahead of Republican venture capitalist Mitt Romney in the Senate race. In the gubernatorial contest, Democrat Roosevelt, campaigning as moderate, trails incumbent Republican William Weld by 27 points.
All this is good news to conservatives here, whose 30-year litany of collective frustration is topped only by fans of the Boston Red Sox.
After Jack Kennedy's successful bids for the US Senate in 1952 and the presidency in 1960, Massachusetts Democrats locked in independent voters and began 30 years of dominance in which state government grew every year, forming arguably the US`s most expansive social safety net.
But the wheels of the Democratic machine came spinning off in the late 1980s when state legislators fanned a sputtering economy by approving a series of tax hikes. Unemployment here soared to almost 10 percent, and the so-called ``Massachusetts Miracle'' became a national joke.
Republican Weld recaptured the governor's office for his party for the first time in 16 years with a pledge to pop the state's bloated budget, and Republicans doubled the number of seats they held in the state senate.
Yet many observers question just how Republican these Republicans really are.
While both Weld and Romney advocate low taxes and less government, they both support abortion rights, and Weld has proven friendly to environmentalists and gay-rights advocates.
``Bill Weld represents the views of the people of Massachusetts on every issue,'' Vernon says. ``He's not out there with his finger in the air, that's just the way it is. It's uncanny.''
According to Mr. DiNatale, this new moderate formula of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism mirrors a trend that has been bubbling nationally.
``We in Massachusetts are not as liberal as we were by any means,'' says Boston resident Angus Hulslander, who plans to vote Republican. ``Liberalism is dying, it was a fad and now reality is setting in. People are sick of shoveling their driveways while the guy down the street on welfare has a snowblower.''
Yet the million-dollar question in Massachusetts is whether the current disarray of the Democratic Party represents a transfer of power, or just a hiatus.
Democrats still hold 80 percent of the legislative seats in the Massachusetts House and Senate and 8 of the state's 10 congressional billets. And according to polls, the GOP's two congressional incumbents are vulnerable.
Former governor and Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis says Kennedy's troubles stem mostly from being an incumbent in a sour political climate.
``It seems like a cyclical thing to me,'' Governor Dukakis says. ``You have to remember that Massachusetts went for Reagan in 1980 and '84, so there's an ebb and flow to this.''
If the Democrats do maintain their strength as Dukakis contends, their candidates will not likely be Kennedy prots.
Calling the Democratic Party before Weld's victory ``fat and lazy,'' gubernatorial candidate Roosevelt said the party should evolve with the electorate, ``not because our values have changed, and not for political reasons, but to get things done.''
As hopeful as they are this year, Republicans don't expect an overnight revolution. Republicans in Massachusetts, Vernon says, are still liberal by national party standards, and electoral realignments take a long time.
``In the South, people have been voting more for Republicans over the last 30 years, and it's just now getting to Congress, let alone the county-commissioner level. We still have a long way to go.''