Jurassa- Chusetts

September 25, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

BOSTON — Boston. -- Massachusetts may be the Jurassic Park of American politics, where the dinosaur of liberalism lumbers on, oblivious to the fact that its era has long since passed. But the Tyrannosaurus Rex is endangered.

For some while, whispers have been heard: This time, Ted Kennedy may actually have to break a sweat to get re-elected. Then last Sunday a poll by a respected Cambridge firm showed Senator Kennedy in a statistical dead heat with his likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.

Mr. Romney, a 47-year-old venture capitalist, is approximately what Republicans would have asked central casting to send to them as the ideal contrast with Mr. Kennedy. Mr. Romney is bemused by the fact that the senator has hired detectives to snoop into his past. A Mormon father of five sons, he doesn't drink, not even Coca-Cola with caffeine. People who know him swear he never swears. This race is (in the words of the Boston Globe's Ben Bradlee Jr.) Pat Boone against Dean Martin.

Mr. Romney was 15 in 1962 when Edward M. Kennedy was first elected to the Senate and Mr. Romney's father, George, was elected governor of Michigan. Mitt Romney espouses a blend of fiscal conservatism and social tolerance (pro-choice on abortion) like that of the incumbent governor, Republican Bill Weld, who is romping toward re-election.

In Senator Kennedy's five re-election campaigns he has averaged more than 66 percent of the vote. The Cambridge poll says: Mr. Romney 43 percent, Mr. Kennedy 42 percent. When those numbers percolate out to the country, conservatives will reach for their checkbooks.

Mr. Romney expects to spend $7 million and expects Mr. Kennedy to spend more. But the Democrat's real war chest is the federal budget. He is translating his seniority (fourth in the Senate, behind Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd and Claiborne Pell) into contracts, public works and other ingredients of Massachusetts' high-pork diet.

Massachusetts' economy has been badly bruised by its government (the Dukakis ''miracle''), by defense cutbacks and by a shakeout in the computer industry. So the large place Senator Kennedy occupies at the federal trough is an asset people here may be reluctant to surrender.

Furthermore, old habits die hard. There has been at least one Kennedy brother in Congress for all but two of the last 48 years -- since Jack went from the Navy to the House in 1946. And Ted, whose wisest detractors will concede that he is a gifted legislator, has arguably had a more consequential career than either Jack or Robert. So Mr. Romney is running against a public monument, and in a state in which although it is not actually illegal to register Republican, only 13 percent of voters do.

On the other hand, more than a third of the eligible voters were not yet born when John Kennedy was assassinated. To them, Camelot is as distant as the Taft administration.

Massachusetts went from being the one state George McGovern carried in 1972 to being one of the 44 states Ronald Reagan carried twice. Still, in the last seven presidential elections (since 1968) Massachusetts has been just slightly less Democratic than the most Democratic state, Rhode Island. If the issues, from welfare reform through health-care reform, get squarely joined, this campaign could be a clear liberal vs. conservative choice.

Mr. Romney has been criticized, by the Kennedy camp and by a rival for the Republican nomination, mostly concerning his business record. He believes it is unlikely that the election will turn on such micro-matters as the fact that members of the family of one of his investors have unsavory political connections in Central America. Or the fact that Mr. Romney financed one of his 59 business deals through Drexel Burnham, of Michael Milken fame.

The political Puritans who started Massachusetts as a semi-theocracy might like the tone of today's campaign. One of Mr. Romney's aides, weary of questions about whether his candidate's Mormonism makes him insensitive to women's issues, wondered aloud why no one asked Senator Kennedy about, say, whether the Roman Catholic Church should ordain women priests. Someone did ask. And Mr. Kennedy said the church should. Then the newspaper of the Boston archdiocese editorially told him, in effect: one pope at a time, please.

There are still six weeks for seriousness. Then there could be a closing curtain for an era.

The two emblematic figures of liberalism today are two Northeasterners born less than four months apart in 1932, the year liberalism came of age with the election to the presidency of another Northeasterner, Franklin Roosevelt. Ted Kennedy is one the two. The other is Mario Cuomo, who is behind in his quest for a fourth term. American politics would be grayer without these two. But the national mood now may be that gray is beautiful.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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