Democrats turn again to Kennedy brand name

Party activists want Teddy's widow to contest Senate seat lost to Republicans after his death.
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Nostalgia and political desperation seem to be combining in the minds of some East Coast Democrats who are not so discreetly signalling to the widow of the late Teddy Kennedy that she may be the only person capable of wresting back the US Senate seat he once held when it comes up for grabs again in two years time.

The courting of Victoria Reggie Kennedy, 56, was inevitable. It is entering the public arena days from the first anniversary of the death of her late husband after a long fight to survive a brain tumour and as Massachusetts – for the first time in decades – enters a new electoral season without a Kennedy steering its fortunes in Washington.

For her part, Ms Kennedy is making a vigorous effort to stifle speculation that she may yet attempt to re-ignite the Camelot flame in the Bay State. "I think there's more than one way to serve," she told yesterday, the website of the New York-based Irish Voice. "And for me, that's not it. I have enormous respect for people who do. And I think I can have a wonderful, productive life serving, but that doesn't have to be elective office."

Few things distress Democrats more than the memories of their botched attempt to hold on to Teddy Kennedy's seat after his death last August. It was kept warm briefly by a Democrat appointed by the governor of the state. But a special election in January saw the party's candidate, Martha Coakley, trounced by Senator Scott Brown, a dashing Republican neophyte who had backing from the Tea Party movement.

Seven months on, the party is coming to terms with something else. While Senator Brown seemed to come from nowhere with scanty credentials that included posing in his younger years for a centre-page spread in Cosmopolitan magazine, in office he is proving unexpectedly effective. A recent Boston Globe poll showed him winning the approval of 55 per cent of voters. Only 18 per cent voiced their disapproval of him.

The opportunity to unseat Mr Brown is still two years away, but Democrats are anxious to find a candidate who may be up to the job. Hence their gravitation once again to a Kennedy name, even if attained only by marriage. It's hard to say whether this is a measure more of the enduring political potency of the first family of liberal politics in America or of the difficulties faced by Democrats in finding and fielding decent candidates.

She would be "a superb candidate, no question", William Delahunt, a US Congressman from Massachusetts told The Washington Post. He, like others in the party, believes she would be the natural choice. "Does she have it? Yeah, she's got it in spades. Anyone would tout her if you're trying to recruit candidates."

"Occasionally, you get people who, God, they'd be a great candidate, and they'd be really good in the job," added retiring US senator Chris Dodd. "And she's one of those rare people I think of as not only being a great candidate, but really great in the job. And there are not that many of those."

A lawyer from Louisiana, Ms Kennedy gave Teddy a second lease on private happiness and political fortune when she became his second wife in 1992. At the time, he was seen by many as a largely spent force, disappointed by a failed run at the US presidency in 1980 and discouraged by repeated family scandals and tragedies. With her at his side, he went on to hold on to his Massachusetts power base and to add healthcare reform to his legacy.

"I adored him, and he got me. He understood me. And he knew I needed to be 'gotten," she told The Globe. "He knew if I were getting upset about something, how to get me un-upset. He was on my side."

She tells friends she still misses him greatly. "My heart is heavy," she said.

It is perhaps because of this, that Ms Kennedy has kept herself occupied on the peripheries of national politics. Last month, plans were unveiled for a new wing to the JFK Museum and Library south of downtown Boston on the waterfront, to be called the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate.

When healthcare reform was in the balance, she was seen in Washington offering pep-talks to waverers on what her husband envisioned from reform. Today she and former Democrat Senator Tom Daschle are co-chairing an effort to sell the healthcare reforms to voters ahead of the mid-term congressional elections.

"I like to just kind of keep busy and keep moving on," she said. "And that's why it's been great, to kind of get around, and when people honour Teddy, to be there, to always sort of look at it from his point of view, the future, and to try to make a positive difference going forward."

So if Democrat grandees, including Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, are coming to her now and pleading with her to consider running in 2012, she may have only herself to blame. Indeed she gives the impression of a person precisely preparing to seek office.

But she has reason for caution. For one, not everyone in her own family is convinced. Among those cited as saying she would be better off concentrating on building the new Kennedy Institute is her step-son, Patrick Kennedy, a congressman from Rhode Island and the youngest child of her late husband. Doubters may be recalling the debacle in New York two years ago when Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President Kennedy, stepped forward to fill the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. To the great embarrassment of Governor David Paterson she inexplicably later withdrew, but not before it had become clear that voters were asking what she offered beyond her lineage and name.

But the question in Massachusetts is a familiar one – who else if not a Kennedy? It is particularly apt in this case because Senator Brown has barely put a foot wrong. "It would take a Kennedy to beat him," Gerry Harrington, a party consultant told The Washington Post. "Logic would dictate Vicki would be it."