Why are we asking this now?
It took a few days, but Massachusetts, indeed the whole country, has at last finished saying its farewells to Edward Moore Kennedy, the Lion of the Senate, who died last Tuesday of brain cancer. So, as of roughly 9am yesterday morning, the starting pistol was fired on the race to succeed him in Washington.
But it's just another seat in the Senate. Why all the fuss and palaver?
Consider this: the Kennedy family has essentially owned one of the two Massachusetts seats in the US Senate since 1952, when John F Kennedy first won it. The Second World War was still a fresh memory and Stalin had one more year running the Soviet Union. On top of that, the state's other Senate seat was won by John Kerry, the former presidential nominee, in a 1984 election. It has been a quarter of a century, in other words, since there has been a seat up for grabs in an open contest. And there is one other thing, of course. Is there another Kennedy out there who could win the seat and keep the Camelot flame alive?
Well that's fun for the folks in New England, but why should the rest of the country care?
It should care not least because Edward Kennedy, represented the last of the New Deal-style liberals in national politics. And occasionally, he was actually listened to, not least when he championed Barack Obama for the White House in 2008. And let's face it, Ted was more than just another politician, he was a Kennedy. Time magazine is suggesting this week that Teddy was the "brother who mattered the most", more, even, than JFK. His are very big and special shoes to fill.
But will his absence really make such a difference on the national scene?
President Obama is climbing a tough hill to get any kind of meaningful bill passed on universal health care, which was closer to Ted Kennedy's heart than any other topic. Most crucially, however, the Democrats had the tremendous luxury of controlling 60 of the 100 seats in the US Senate, the magic point at which it can overrule any filibuster tactics by the Republicans. With Teddy gone and the majority thus reduced to 59, that protection is gone. With Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, also in very frail condition, the Senate leader, Harry Reid, has a very big problem on his hands: how to get back to 60 again.
The voters of Massachusetts just need to elect another loyal Democrat to replace Teddy, don't they?
As the law stands now, a special election must be held but only after a cooling-off period of nearly five months. That is a potential a disaster for the White House. Just before dying, Teddy sent a letter to Governor Deval Patrick, asking that he seek a change in the rules whereby he would be free to appoint an interim replacement to keep his seat warm pending that election. This is tricky because in 2004, the state Democrats specifically undid that provision so that in the event of John Kerry winning the presidential race the then Republican Governor – Mitt Romney – would not have the power to select someone to replace him, even if only for a temporary period. But if it is awkward, probably the Democrats will do just as Teddy asked and find someone to hold the seat and, hopefully, help to get healthcare done.
Does Governor Patrick have anyone in mind?
We don't know if he does yet, but some names have begun to pop up, most notably two grey-beards of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, its former chairman Paul Kirk, and none other than Michael Dukakis, the presidential nominee back in 1988. Either of these gentlemen can be relied on to step aside when they are done and harbour no secret ambition to run in the special election, which would happen in January. But in addition to them another possible candidate is being mentioned by leaders of both parties in Washington: Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the second wife and widow of Teddy. A lawyer originally from New Orleans, she is said to have a brilliant mind.
She would keep a Kennedy nameplate on a Senate door for a while. And after that?
Well, it is possible that Vicki, 55, would decline to take the seat on an interim basis and prefer to run herself in the special election in January. There is a precedent for widows taking over from deceased husbands in the Senate. (Jean Carnahan of Missouri served in the place of her husband Mel Carnahan, who was elected to the US Senate three weeks after being killed in a plane crash in 2000.) Her friends have been insisting in recent days that she is not interested. We shall see.
With all due respect, Vicki is not a real Kennedy. Not by blood, anyway. Who else is there?
You will be hearing a lot about Joseph P Kennedy II, the son of Bobby Kennedy and nephew to JFK and Teddy. He has those striking, rakish Kennedy looks, a colourful personal life – he tried to have his first marriage annulled only to draw fierce opposition from the Vatican – was once in the US House of Representatives and remains a high profile figure, not least because since leaving Washington in 1999, he has led an energy company supplying cheap oil to the state's poorest. The word is he will decide in the next few days if he will run to replace his uncle or not. If he decides to do so everyone and anyone else thinking of doing the same thing will probably have to think again. Edward Kennedy Jr, Teddy's son, was thought to have given the best eulogy at his funeral and, though he lives in Connecticut, is seen by some as a possible contender also. Patrick Kennedy, Teddy's other son, gave a good address too and is now serving as a US Congressman. However, he has a long record of problems with alcohol and drug abuse.
Who are those other non-Kennedy folk who could jump in?
One is the current State Attorney General, Martha Coakley, who may still be familiar to some as one of the prosecutors in the Louise Woodward baby-shaking case. That trial was 10 years ago but did a lot to put Ms Coakley's name in the public conscience. Two current members of the US House of Representatives, Edward Markey, and Michael Capuano, have also indicated they are interested in running. On the Republican side – yes, it is possible they could snatch the seat, though only just – names circulating include that of former Governor Jane Swift and former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey.
Have we seen the last of the Kennedys serving in the US Senate?
*There may be more Kennedys out there, but none have the stature or the depth of voter affection.
*Vicki has given no indication she is ready to enter the circus of politics and Joe has too many negatives.
*The Kennedys have had a lock on that one seat for more than half a century. It's time for another name.
*There are at least two Kennedy offspring – Joe and Edward Jr – who could run to replace Edward.
*She is not giving any clues, but Vicki Reggie Kennedy is highly regarded by leaders of both parties.
*The emotional connection between Massachusetts and the Kennedys remains almost incalculable.