In a fiery first debate on Tuesday night, Mr Romney, 47, a little-known venture capitalist, needed to show that it was time for youth to triumph over experience. But Mr Kennedy, who is 62, demonstrated that he is not ready to go quietly from public life.
The senator wielded his Capitol Hill clout and liberal record on issues from abortion to health, crime and social security. Mr Romney gave as good as he got, but Mr Kennedy did not even stumble. Each claimed victory, but to the audience it looked like a draw - and that meant Mr Kennedy came off best, said the pollsters. 'If Kennedy didn't lose, he won. If Romney didn't win, he lost,' said Dale Herbeck, a communications professor at Boston College.
In the last two weeks, Mr Kennedy, using vicious television ads to portray his opponent as an uncaring conservative, has reversed Mr Romney's initial strong showing. In some angry exchanges during the debate, the senator accused Mr Romney of denying health care to his part-time workers while Mr Romney countered that the Kennedys did the same thing at their retail outlet in Chicago.
Mr Romney also charged the senator and his family with making huge profits out of a Washington DC development partly funded by the government. Mr Kennedy snapped back: ' The Kennedys are not in public service to make money. We have suffered too much for that.'
Outside the Faneuil Hall, 2,000 partisans exchanged insults. Trade unionists shouted: 'Mitt's a scab'; Mr Romney's supporters replied: 'One, two, three, four, Teddy's gone in '94.' Independent voters hold the key to any Republican's chances in predominantly Democratic Massachusetts. The latest Boston Herald poll has Mr Kennedy ahead 50 to 32, but 18 per cent of voters were undecided.