Massachusetts Republican Party officials, down to their last chance to find a credible candidate, are working to persuade Essex Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr. to run against US Senator Edward M. Kennedy next year.
In a behind-the-scenes effort, state GOP leaders have spent over a month talking with Cousins about launching what most political observers say would very likely be a futile mission against Kennedy, who has talked of running a hard-edged campaign to retain the seat he has held since 1962.
Cousins this week confirmed that he was in discussions with party officials, but he downplayed his interest in the race.
''It would be a massive undertaking and I don't know if I want to do that," said the 47-year-old former Republican state representative from Newburyport. If he declines to run, party officials say they are unlikely to find a potential GOP candidate who they feel could mount an effective challenge to Kennedy.
Governor William F. Weld appointed Cousins to the sheriff's post in 1996 to fill a vacancy. He was the first African-American to be a Massachusetts sheriff. He won elections in 1998 and 2004 in heavily Democratic Essex County.
''To take on Ted Kennedy, you have to put a lot of thought into it," he said. ''When I run, I run to win."
Still, Republican officials want to show they can still mount a challenge against Kennedy. They are promising to raise Cousins sufficient money to run an effective campaign, one that would raise his profile and his political stature among voters for a potential run for another statewide office, one top GOP official said. Cousins would not have to give up his position to run.
In August, Cousins met with a coordinator from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, according to a GOP official. The committee can provide $35,000 in cash and unlimited indirect expenditures, such an independent ads or operations through the state party to help a GOP senate candidate.
According to Republicans familiar with the matter, state Republican Party chairman Darrell Crate has been in frequent communication with Cousins. Governor Mitt Romney has weighed in, urging Cousins to run.
Associates say the 73-year-old Kennedy is trying to run unopposed next year, a luxury he has never enjoyed. That plan has included sending a message to would-be opponents that they can expect a full onslaught, much like what Mitt Romney faced in his 1994 race against Kennedy.
''This is a difficult and challenging profession," Kennedy told Globe columnist Brian McGrory in June. ''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."
Kennedy has about $8 million in campaign funds and plans to have well more than that by this time next year, Democrats who are helping him say. Democrats who work with him say he takes his fund-raising seriously, even writing personal notes to everyone who gives to him.
There is even debate within some GOP circles whether it is strategically correct to pursue other potential candidate if Cousins drops back. Some argue that the party should concentrate on finding good candidates for statewide constitutional offices. And others say that a Kennedy candidacy would merely energize the Democratic base to come out in November, when the Republican gubernatorial nominee will likely be in a tight race.