Kennedy in Fight Of His Political Life

October 2, 1994, Sunday, NASSAU AND SUFFOLK EDITION; NEWS; Pg. A04

By Al Gordon.  STAFF CORRESPONDENT

Boston - Sen. Edward M. Kennedy stands before a standing-room-only crowd at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “I know why you’re really here,” he says, “and I’m glad he’s here, too.” The audience, mostly students, cheers. In the background, John F. Kennedy Jr. gives a shy smile.

There is less cheering - none, in fact - as the Massachusetts Democrat speaks on civil rights. His talk is disjointed and punctuated with references to sections of federal legislation unfamiliar to the audience. He is right; the audience is there to see his nephew. 

It has come to this for the 62-year-old senator: after 32 years in office, after never falling below 60 percent of the vote in six previous campaigns, Ted Kennedy is in political trouble.

Republican Mitt Romney, 47, a venture capitalist and management consultant, is dead even with Kennedy in the polls, and political experts see momentum flowing Romney’s way. The son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, the candidate has positioned himself as an anti-”government intrusion” conservative against Kennedy, the quintessential traditional liberal.

The senator has been forced into launching personal attack ads against his rival - in previous campaigns, Kennedy barely mentioned opponents by name - and into seeking the glamour coattails of others such as JFK Jr. and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Before, Kennedy was always the candidate with charisma.

In surveys done after the Sept. 20 primary, a Boston Globe/WBZ poll showed Kennedy with 48 percent of the vote compared with 46 percent for Romney. A Boston Herald/WCVB poll put Romney ahead 44 percent to 42 percent. Both results were within the polls’ margin of error, translating into a statistical dead heat. Voters gave Kennedy good marks for his effectiveness in Washington, and the two candidates had roughly equal ratings on major issues. But voters told pollsters by a 3-2 margin that they thought Kennedy had been in office too long.

“If the election were held today, Kennedy would lose. That’s the definition of trouble,” said John Ellis, a Boston-based advertising and polling consultant and nephew of former President George Bush. The younger, thinner, athletic-looking Romney has done better on TV than the overweight, ruddy-faced, surprisingly stiff Kennedy, Ellis said. “Visually it’s the difference between [political] life and death.”

Michael Goldman, a Democratic political consultant, agrees that Kennedy is in “serious trouble.” He said Kennedy should prevail if he can remind voters of how his clout in Washington “still matters to the lives of working people in the state.” But he agrees that the contest has become a referendum on Kennedy’s record, philosophy and character. “The race is mainly about Ted Kennedy,” Goldman said.

Kennedy long has faced “character questions,” especially after the 1969 Chappaquiddick scandal, in which he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor motor vehicle charges after an accident that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a Kennedy campaign worker. But his popularity began to erode sharply after the 1991 rape trial of nephew William Kennedy Smith. Its picture of a carousing senator made him the target of jokes and sent his poll ratings plummeting.

Kennedy’s standing has recovered somewhat, helped by his marriage to Victoria Reggie Kennedy, a Washington lawyer who has been prominently featured in his campaign. But his first wife, Joan, is trying to reopen their divorce settlement, keeping the senator’s private life on public display.

The campaign has taken an ugly turn, defying the traditional caution against mixing politics and religion. Romney has been a local leader in the Mormon Church, which has only a small membership in Massachusetts. Kennedy surrogates and the senator himself have seized upon the Mormons’ previous practice of excluding blacks from leadership positions and their current practice of barring women as leaders as indicating that the Republican candidate has condoned discrimination.

This led to Romney invoking the memory of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 struggle to overcome anti-Catholic sentiment. “I am sad to see Ted Kennedy taking away his brother’s victory,” Romney said. He said he opposes discrimination in any form, but “will not publicly criticize [my church] on matters of theology.”

The next day, Kennedy issued a statement saying “I believe that religion should not be an issue in this campaign.” The Kennedy campaign, however, has not backed off charges that no blacks are partners in Romney’s investment firm. A Romney spokesman said blacks have been partners in the past.

Charles Manning, a Romney strategist, accuses the Kennedy campaign of “desperation tactics.” Kennedy partisans maintain that Romney started the negativity with commercials on family values, which they see as thinly veiled efforts to take shots at Kennedy’s personal life.

The senator’s normal edge in campaign funds has been neutralized by Romney’s willingness to put his own money into the race. The Republican has put up $ 1.8 million and raised another $ 2 million. Kennedy has raised more than $ 4.5 million.

Campaign experts believe the Kennedy campaign has made some tactical errors. The campaign let Romney’s TV commercials go unanswered for more than a month, and when it took to the air, it focused on crime, an area where Romney who, unlike Kennedy, supports the death penalty and tougher mandatory sentences, has an edge.

But Republicans remain only a tiny minority in Massachusetts, and Kennedy retains a solid core of loyalists. Romney has yet to be pushed beyond generalities on the issues, and his attacks on a state icon could provoke a backlash.

Political strategists think Kennedy can win if he can get the focus of the campaign away from his character and back on his ability to protect federal support for key sources of Massachusetts jobs such as education, health, and defense contractors.

Still, the senator’s problem was demonstrated this summer when a Boston TV station contrasted footage of today’s aging senator with a more youthful and vigorous Ted Kennedy giving his “the dream shall never die” speech at the 1980 Democratic national convention. After so many years in the spotlight, Edward M. Kennedy must run as much against himself as against Mitt Romney.

Copyright 1994, Newsday Inc.