Anti-incumbent fever may doom Ted Kennedy

October 14, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Sun Staff Correspondent

QUINCY, Mass. -- Charlie and Doris Doheny are watching Ted Kennedy work a crowd at Shea Park after the dedication of a statue honoring granite workers.

"I don't care what he's done," Charlie says. "He's been there too long. That's all there is to it."

"If that's the way you feel," Doris replies huffily, "you should go stand across the street."

She gestures toward a clutch of people holding campaign signs for Mr. Kennedy's Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. "Just go across the street with those Republicans."

The Dohenys are lifelong Democrats, and their division of opinion tells it all about the campaign that Edward M. Kennedy is waging to save his seat after 32 years in the Senate. The operative question is not about ideology or party but whether Ted Kennedy has simply been around too long.

Although Mr. Kennedy still gets high marks from voters here for his performance over the years, there are enough of the disaffected in this season of political discontent to threaten him.

Opinion polls show Mr. Romney, the 47-year-old son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, running essentially even -- ahead in some polls, behind in others, but always within clear range of an upset that would have seemed unthinkable only two months ago.

Mr. Kennedy won the seat 32 years ago by defeating George Lodge, the scion of another Massachusetts political family, with 54 percent of the vote.

Until this year he has never been seriously challenged, although he has always faced a hard core of hostility from perhaps a third of the electorate. The rule in Bay State politics always has been that it is easy to get 42 percent of the vote against Ted Kennedy but impossible to get 50 percent.

This year, however, Mr. Kennedy's negatives in opinion polls are running in the mid-40s, and old-fashioned liberals are out of style. Growing numbers of voters are determined to reject the political establishment and Democrats in particular.

Mr. Kennedy is not taking the threat lightly. He still has the ability to charm some voters head-to-head with his easy bantering style. He jokes about his age -- he is 62 -- and girth, but he also is a walking reminder of a family tradition of political service that has fulfilled his 1962 promise that "He Can Do More for Massachusetts."

And he has a record of delivering the goods for those most in need that is second to none in the Senate. His campaign slogan this year, "Making a Difference for Massachusetts," has more validity than most such formulations.

A new majority?

But the central question is whether there is a new majority of voters who don't believe that the products of activist liberal government are either effective or worth the cost.

That is the string that Mr. Romney touches repeatedly when he focuses on what he calls "the obvious failure of the 1960s agenda."

"It's been tried for the last 32 years," he told an audience at a home for the aged here the other day, "and it hasn't worked. It has failed."

The handsome and articulate Republican candidate offers voters benign rationale for turning out Mr. Kennedy after all these years. "It's time to bring Ted Kennedy home so he can retire, too," he tells a group of retirees. "Not out of bitterness. We appreciate his service, and we know his heart is in the right place . . . but it's time to bring him home."

"I don't think he's a bad person," he tells another group. "I just think he's out of touch."

But the Republican campaign also is designed to take advantage of the reaction against politicians that is so pervasive in the 1994 campaign.

Bob Marsh, manager of the Romney campaign, puts it this way: "There's just a lot of people out there who want to see a change -- a lot more than the 35 percent who were always against Kennedy. And he can't change what he is."

In fact, Mr. Kennedy is not trying to change what he is so much as he is trying to remind voters what he has meant to them.

That is the reason, for example, why he is looking forward to appearing with President Clinton in Boston for a ceremonial signing of an education bill -- to reinforce the picture of himself as a senator who gets things done for ordinary Americans.

There are differences in the Kennedy campaign this year. In the past, he has paid only lip service to grass-roots organization, simply because he really didn't need one and could depend on Democratic gubernatorial candidates -- Michael S. Dukakis for example -- to do the field work.

Loaded with professionals

But this time, his campaign is loaded with professionals from Boston who are putting together the kind of apparatus that could make a difference in a close election.

Mr. Kennedy is facing some obstacles that are essentially beyond his control, however. One is the change in demographics. There are fewer voters still alive who remember the glory days of John F. Kennedy's presidency.

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