Big-hitters lock horns in classic contest

THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS The Senate race in Massachusetts is one to savour, writes Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
Lowell, Massachusetts - The Democratic candidate is a Bay State grandee who went to Yale, won a purple heart in Vietnam, and was elected a senator before marrying a food company heiress worth $675m. He has been known to quote Andre Gide to the Boston Globe and bears the initials - more resonant in this state than anywhere on earth - of JFK.

Not to be outdone, his wisecracking Republican opponent traces his Yankee pedigree back to 1650 ("My ancestors arrived in the US with just the shirts on their backs - they sent the servants on ahead").

He attended Harvard and Oxford, wrote a thesis on the Roman poet Propertius and apart from playing squash, hunting wild boar and serving as Governor, still cracks a mean joke in Latin. Needless to say, he's also a millionaire, whose wife is a great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt.

This Senate race is big league. In fact, unless a hitherto vapid presidential campaign suddenly takes fire, it's the best in the country this autumn. Massachusetts loves its politics, and it has a feast to savour. No undertows of race or squalid sex scandal - just two very rich, very classy, very talented white boys slugging it out.

In the Democratic corner is John Forbes Kerry, husband of Theresa Heinz, and the esteemed junior senator from Massachusetts since 1984. Challenging him is William Floyd Weld, the hugely popular two-term Republican Governor of the most consistently Democratic state in the nation.

In some ways, they are as different as could be. Mr Weld is a patrician populist who looks like a rugby forward, with an "aw-shucks" style and rather limited attention span. Mr Kerry, by contrast, comes across as stiff and reserved, earnest to the point of sanctimony, and single-minded enough to devote years as a Senate subcommittee chairman to the pursuit of BCCI.

But the similarities are at least as many. They are botharound 50. Both embody philosophies that may shape their parties in the next decade: Mr Weld as a tax-cutting, tough-on-crime conservative who none the less supports gay rights and a woman's right to have an abortion; Mr Kerry, the erstwhile liberal who has edged rightward, backing higher federal funding to fight crime as well as welfare reform and a balanced budget. Both have entertained dreams of the White House (Mr Weld almost certainly still does). And less than a month before election day, there's not an inch of daylight between them.

For more than a year now, the campaign has been running at full pitch. They have argued, shouted and vilified each other; Mr Weld calls his opponent an unreconstructed liberal, who in turn depicts the Governor as a clone of Newt Gingrich.

Given Massachusetts' Democratic traditions and the fact that Bill Clinton leads Bob Dole here by 25 points, Mr Weld is doing remarkably well to be level pegging in the polls. As he collects the endorsement of the Lowell Police Patrolmen's Union, you can understand why. Lowell is a gritty New England mill town, tarted up somewhat these days, but still best known as the birthplace of Jack Kerouac. With its blue-collar, union traditions it is a natural Democrat stronghold.

"John Kerry sees things from the point of view of the criminal, I see things from the point of view of the people they hurt and kill," Mr Weld says in his setpiece speech outside city hall.You cannot help but like him.For Reagan Democrats across America in the 1980s, read Weld Democrats in Massachusetts in the 1990s.

Small wonder Mr Kerry is pulling out all the stops. Mr Clinton was special guest at a rock 'n' roll fest-cum-fundraiser in Boston last month, while Hillary Clinton is a frequent campaigner too: in liberal Massachusetts if few places else in America, the First Lady is a heroine. For this is a seat the Democrats must not lose.

And the smart money says they won't lose, for one paradoxical reason: voters, Republicans and Democrats alike, love Mr Weld right where he is. The Governor has yet to explain why he yearns to abandon power here to be just one of 100 senators in Washington. Mr Kerry performs that role perfectly, the reasoning runs; if Mr Weld wants to run for President, he can do so from Boston. After all, look what happened to the last-but- one Governor of Arkansas. Thus the subliminal slogan of campaign '96 - "Vote Kerry, To Keep Weld" - may be a winner.