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BRIAN MCGRORY

No more Mr. Nice Guy

Edward M. Kennedy is furious.

No, it's nothing to do with the Bolton nomination or the Downing Street memos. It's not George Bush or Bill Frist. Rather, it's over his 2006 reelection campaign, which might seem a little odd, since he doesn't actually have an opponent.

Doesn't matter. What Kennedy is angry about is the perception, spread by at least one GOP consultant in Boston, that the senior senator from Massachusetts makes an ideal steppingstone for any novice Republican looking to pursue elective office.

The rationale is as follows: The affable Kennedy tends to run gentlemanly campaigns against his invariably inexperienced opponents; the Republican candidate runs and loses in a mutually respectful race; a couple of years later, the defeated Republican uses the positive publicity generated during the Kennedy campaign to win a different statewide office.

As the Republican strategist Charley Manning wrote in a guest column on the opinion pages of this newspaper earlier this month, ''Running against Kennedy is one of the best moves a woman or man who wants to be a major figure in Massachusetts politics can make."

Now comes Kennedy to profoundly disagree. In fact, he was on the phone last week from Washington to essentially say that the nice-guy campaigns of yesteryear are just that: history. Anyone who runs against him for the rest of his career runs at his or her own peril.

''Historically, what I've always tried to do is run for the office, not against someone," he said, an acknowledgement of what's gone on before.

Then he delivered this barely veiled threat: ''This is a difficult and challenging profession. No one should come to it lightly. As it should be. People have to be held accountable, professionally, and the public is looking at it in terms of private lives, as well. Everything is fair game."

To that end, Kennedy raised a staggering $2.3 million in the first quarter of 2005, and advisers privately say they are looking to have $7 million in the bank by the end of this week, a heady number in what so far is looking like a free ride. He has taken fund-raising tours through California, Florida, and Illinois, while delivering speeches to at least five major Massachusetts chambers of commerce since the November election.

Kennedy is an unusual figure in the modern age of political polarity. He is a liberal lightning rod who has a back-slapping relationship in the privacy of the cloakroom with many of his conservative counterparts. Never particularly close to John F. Kerry, he nonetheless seemed to be the junior senator's only ally during the bleakest, loneliest days of the Iowa caucus, thundering before crowds while quietly urging Kerry to do more and do better. These days, he seems to like nothing so much as his boat, his dogs, and his family, quite possibly in that order.

His amiability spilled into his prior races. The late Ray Shamie, then a political unknown, ran a highly lauded campaign against Kennedy in 1982, allowing him to become chairman of the state GOP. Once there, Shamie is credited with engineering the Republican successes in 1990 that spawned 15 consecutive years and counting of GOP governorships.

Joe Malone lost to Kennedy in a veritable pajama party of a campaign in 1988. There were times when the two looked as if they were best friends. Malone then went on to win a statewide campaign for treasurer.

Mitt Romney waged his first campaign for elective office against Kennedy in 1994, winning for losing, even in a campaign with a slightly sharper tenor. Now, in his sporadic visits to Massachusetts, Romney serves as governor.

The stakes are even higher these days. If Kerry again seeks the presidency, the Republican loser to Kennedy might find himself or herself the front-runner for an open Senate seat in 2008.

So no more Mr. Nice Guy, Kennedy needs the GOP to know. Never again does he want his opponent to live to fight another day.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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