See Teddy Run Scared

With his boyish good looks and his soft-edged conservatism, millionaire businessman W. Mitt Romney looks like just the guy to scare the daylights out of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy, now 62, is pudgy, silver-haired and a bit dissolute-looking after 32 years in the Senate and one failed presidential attempt. Chappaquiddick, the William Kennedy Smith scandal and the old rumors about the senator's private life have dented his image, and the Kennedy magic has been slowly evaporating for years, even in Massachusetts. Political experts say 35 to 40 percent of all Bay State voters can now be categorized as "Kennedy haters." In May a Boston Globe poll showed that 52 percent of the public thought it was "time to give someone else a chance" for the Senate. "We are going to be facing a very tough fight," concedes Michael Kennedy, the senator's nephew and campaign manager.

The Republican front runner is Romney, who at 47 is the youngest child of former Michigan governor (and former presidential contender) George Romney. A devout Mormon and an unabashed family man, Romney is a venture capitalist who rescued Bain & Co., a prominent Boston management-consulting firm, from bankruptcy. He has a law degree and an M.B.A. from Harvard, and he is the Massachusetts GOP's best hope for unseating Ted Kennedy in years. To his admirers, Romney bears an uncanny resemblance to Gov. William Weld, the first-term Republican moderate who combines fiscal conservatism with something close to liberalism on social issues. Last year Weld ran just about even with Kennedy in a trial-heat opinion poll, a result that once again revived the talk that Kennedy was vulnerable. Now, says Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman, GOP strategists are trying to clone Bill Weld.

But Romney, Goldman insists, is no Bill Weld -- and a recent controversy over Romney's views on homosexuality suggests Goldman may be right. As The Boston Globe told it, Romney condemned homosexuality as "perverse" and "reprehensible" at a local Mormon gathering last fall. Romney, who says he supports a bill outlawing workplace discrimination against gays, vehemently denied the Globe story and said he "didn't try to single out homosexuals in any way." Others who were there, like Harvard Business School professor Steven Wheelwright, backed Romney's version of the event and said the Globe story was primarily based on the complaints of one disgruntled listener. Nonetheless, gay political activists were incensed. "We don't trust Mitt Romney when he claims to be a supporter of gay rights and social liberalism," said David LaFontaine, political director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. Last week the gay and lesbian coalition endorsed Romney's opponent, John Lakian, in the September Republican primary.

Romney is pushing ahead with his dream of upsetting Kennedy, and he has promised to spend up to $8 million to do it. But he is a political novice running against one of the toughest pols in America, and his response to the Globe story seemed to show it. "Thin skinned," said political analyst Lou DiNatale. Kennedy, meanwhile, has by all accounts been rejuvenated by his marriage to the former Victoria Reggie, and he is already flooding the state with ads touting his clout and seniority. Though the election is months away, the senator is 22 points ahead and showing no inclination to coast. Sure, DiNatale says, the Republicans could bring up Kennedy's shadowed past one more time. But Chappaquiddick was 25 years ago -- and the voters have heard it all before.

See Teddy Run Scared | News