WASHINGTON -- Last week, a conservative group calling itself the "American Front" promised to deploy "hundreds" of protesters from a variety of organizations outside an auditorium where Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., was to speak.
But when it was time for the protest, only three young men came to register their indignation over the latest sex controversy to taint the Kennedy name -- a showing dwarfed by the reporters who came to cover the ballyhooed demonstration.
As much as this new scandal has commanded headlines around the country, it seems to have dropped into a very large, very still pool of indifference in official Washington, where policy-makers and the people who hover around them have long grown inured to tales of Kennedys and alcohol and sex.
The most recent addition to the corpus of Kennedy sex lore stems from a woman's allegation that she was raped by Mr. Kennedy's nephew, William Kennedy Smith, at the family's estate in Palm Beach, Fla., last month. The accuser told police that she went to the estate after having drinks at a local bar with Mr. Smith, Mr. Kennedy and the senator's son Patrick. Though Mr. Smith is a suspect in the case, Palm Beach police have yet to file charges.
Throughout the week, as teams of reporters nipped at his heels, the embattled Mr. Kennedy went about his work. By all appearances, he tried as best he could to behave as if all were normal. If the inevitable pack of reporters lay in wait, he would good-naturedly try to throw them off the scent. If that ploy didn't work, he would soberly and directly answer questions reporters put to him.
"It's all happening in there. It's all happening in there," Mr. Kennedy chortled as he darted out of a lunch for Democratic senators. Around the corner, another group snared him, this time resisting his entreaties to ask some other Democrat about the rail strike, or the Kurdish problem, or the education bill, or any of the multitudinous issues bombarding the Capitol on an hourly basis.
"All of us have always understood that there are things that you can and should do differently, and I've certainly recognized that fact, and we just have to go on from there," he told one reporter from the Associated Press.
Kennedy staffers readily admitted it was a happy coincidence that the rail strike, the controversy over the Kurds and the unveiling of President Bush's education package all took place as media speculation over the Palm Beach incident reached a feverish pitch.
As chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs, Mr. Kennedy took charge of a hearing on the Kurdish problem. As chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, he was a nearly ubiquitous authority on the rail strike, and he attended Thursday's White House announcement of the education proposal.
But Mr. Kennedy's press secretary, Paul Donovan, insisted that his boss' unusual visibility had not been contrived to deflect attention from the Palm Beach imbroglio. "He's very concerned," Mr. Donovan said, "but he's not letting it distract him from his work."
Mr. Kennedy's colleagues in the Senate say that the affair has taken its toll on him but that he has not let it affect his schedule.
"I think this really hurts him; I can see that," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, a conservative who has clashed repeatedly with the liberal Mr. Kennedy in both the judiciary and the labor committees. "But he's a real workhorse."
Mr. Hatch says he jokingly told Mr. Kennedy that "if you keep getting into trouble, I'm going to lose my temper and I'm going to send the Mormon missionaries after you." As Mr. Hatch tells it, "He got a wistful look and said, 'Orrin, I'm just about ready for them.' "
As senators closed ranks around a beleaguered colleague, allies and adversaries elsewhere predicted that the incident would not derail a career that has already survived scandals that would damage lesser political figures. Mr. Kennedy, now in his fifth term, has easily been re-elected despite the 1969 Chappaquiddick scandal in which a woman riding in his car drowned when he drove off a bridge.
In Massachusetts, several columnists have predicted that this latest incident will trigger the demise of Mr. Kennedy's political career. "The reasons are simple," wrote Mike Barnicle, a columnist for the Boston Globe. "People have grown tired of a man who is out of control."
But even Mr. Kennedy's opponents doubt that another cloud over the Kennedy name will change people's minds about a man who has become the living icon of American liberalism.
"People are talking about it but, honestly, I don't think it's going to matter a hill of beans," predicted one prominent Massachusetts Republican.
The American Conservative Union invokes Mr. Kennedy as its archenemy in most fund-raising materials. But, says director Robert Billings, the group doesn't plan to make use of the Palm Beach affair.
"A lot of people hear the name 'Kennedy' and they think of booze and women," said Mr. Billings. "We don't need to use this to make him a bogyman. His voting record does that for him."
Even Republican Party tacticians don't plan on adding the Palm Beach incident to the quiver of political arrows they plan to use against him during his expected re-election effort. Instead, they plan to deploy the one argument that Kennedys of a generation past wielded with such explosive effect -- the argument that Massachusetts needs a new face in the U.S. Senate.
If Mr. Kennedy runs in 1994, "He will have been in office for 32 years, and a whole cadre of voters aged 18 to 32 won't remember his brothers and won't know about the Kennedy mystique," predicted Alan Saffron of the Massachusetts Republican Party. "They'll only know that there's this old guy who's been in office forever."