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Prince of Camelot's last stand: Ted Kennedy looks a wreck as he struggles to keep a fabled political dynasty alive, writes David Usborne

AS CAMPAIGN events go, it was not exactly electrifying - a dinner for the Cape Verdean Prime Minister, Carlos Veiga, in a cavernous restaurant on the outskirts of Boston. Only as Ted Kennedy is heading for the door are you reminded why he is here. 'We really want . . . need your help,' he blurts to Salah Matteos, the bearded gentleman who had served as the evening's master of ceremonies. 'Help me out]'

There were the broad Kennedy grin and a hefty slap on the back for Mr Matteos, but the appeal was serious. Even a few hundred votes from the Cape Verde community - concentrated along the shores of Cape Cod - could make the difference between another term in the US Senate or political oblivion when voters in Massachusetts vote in the mid- term elections next month.

Mr Kennedy's race, against a neophyte Republican businessman, Mitt Romney, looks that close. Indeed, recent polls have put Ted almost neck and neck with Mr Romney, a highly telegenic, 47-year-old father of five and a lay preacher in the Mormon church, who has never before run for public office.

'I think this is going to stay a 50-50 dead heat more or less all the way,' says John Gormon, director of Opinion Dynamics, a Boston-based polling company. But if he had to lay a dollar down now, he says, he would put it on Mr Romney.

Riding along with the Kennedy caravan evokes conflicting emotions. Here beside you is Teddy, the youngest and the last of the Kennedy brothers; the surviving prince of the only royal family America has ever had. There is still a glimmer of that Kennedy panache in the smile, the friendly glances. Then, too, there is the glow of Victoria Reggie Kennedy, his 40-year-old wife of two years, always by his side, dazzling in her two-piece suit, heels and long raven hair.

Against all that is the overwhelming sense of decay - political and physical. Mr Kennedy, now pushing 63, looks a wreck - an impression compounded by the beauty of his new wife. The nagging of a horrendous back injury he suffered in a 1963 plane crash has given him a limping, almost waddling, gait. His features are puffy and blotchy, his eyes horribly blood- shot. To see him now - tugging his jacket tails over his backside before braving each public event - is to see a grotesque distortion of the Kennedy image as it was always meant to be: dashing and lithe.

That in itself may matter. 'In his television ads, he has make-up on and looks sort of all right,' Mr Gorman says. 'But then you see him on the evening news, and from the ads to the news, you have to wonder what has happened to the guy in the space of 15 minutes.'

It is a spectacle that also reminds voters of Teddy's lurid tabloid past, stretching through the years of reported drink and debauchery after his divorce from his first wife, Joan, in 1982 - and even back to that night on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969, when his car plunged into the water and Mary Jo Kopechne was drowned. Mr Romney, by contrast, is shiningly handsome and squeaky clean. Because of his religion, he will not touch coffee or Coca-Cola.

Mr Kennedy may just not be a good campaigner. In his past six Senate races in Massachusetts, he has barely had to break a sweat, each time winning with a roughly two-thirds majority against lame Republican opposition. His one really big campaign - for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination in competition with Jimmy Carter - was an unmitigated disaster.

More importantly, the liberal brand of Democratic politics that Mr Kennedy still so staunchly defends may no longer have a constituency, even in Massachusetts, probably still the most liberal of American states. The only other old-fashioned liberal still on the political scene, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, is also involved in the election fight of his life.

Also working against Mr Kennedy is a strong national anti-incumbent sentiment that threatens to assist Republicans next month to erode dramatically the Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress.

Mr Kennedy is the incumbent incarnate. He entered the Senate when he was just 30 in 1962, and Jack was in the White House. If Ted is dethroned by Mitt, it will indeed be the end of an era: for all but two of the past 48 years, at least one of the three Kennedy brothers has held a Congress seat.

It may not help Ted that his reputation as a legislator is almost unparalleled. George Will, the conservative columnist, suggested last week that Ted has 'arguably had a more consequential career than either Jack or Robert'. And Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, two years ago named him as the most effective lawmaker in Congress.

It may not be too late for Mr Kennedy. Recent television ads attacking Mr Romney's business practices have given him a small boost; and Ted's campaign last week took a risk in directing the attentions of voters to Mr Romney's religion, which, until 1978, forbade black men from becoming priests, and persists in refusing to ordain women.

Mr Romney hit back, alleging that Ted was dishonuring the memory of Jack, who, as a presidential candidate and a Catholic, declared in 1960: ''I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.'

But those close to Ted are said to be pessimistic. 'His friends don't feel good about it,' a source said, 'and are asking why he didn't bow out gracefully and hand the Senate seat to his nephew.' That is Joseph Kennedy, who is running unopposed, for re-election to the House, in the Boston district once represented by Jack. He could be joined in the House by Patrick Kennedy, running in a district in Rhode Island.

Perhaps the people of Massachusetts will balk at dumping the last prince, but romanticism over the Kennedy family seems all but exhausted.

'Outside the hard core, Camelot died a long time ago,' says Tom Oliphant, a Boston Globe columnist and veteran Kennedy-watcher. 'This is just another guy running for re-election. There is nothing special about a Kennedy.'

(Photograph and graphic omitted)