As part of a coordinated attack by the Bush campaign, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey called yesterday for US Senator John F. Kerry to resign immediately, saying that he had missed so many roll call votes in the Senate that he wasn't representing the Commonwealth in the Senate.
Healey, Bush's campaign co-chairwoman in Massachusetts, accused Kerry of having abandoned his duties in the Senate by missing 87 percent of the roll calls this year and 64 percent last year because he was campaigning for the presidency.
''John Kerry has left the people of Massachusetts underrepresented in one of the highest lawmaking bodies in the nation," said Healey, speaking outside the governor's State House office. An immediate Kerry resignation would clear the way for Governor Mitt Romney to appoint a Republican to the seat and bolster GOP strength in the Senate, where the Republicans rule by a razor-thin majority.
Kerry brushed aside the Republican attack, saying that his absenteeism in the Senate is a necessary part of his presidential campaign effort, which is aimed at ''serving the citizens of Massachusetts and the country in the proposals I've laid out."
''I'm running to provide responsible leadership, and I intend to continue to do that," said Kerry, who spoke to reporters at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport in Covington, Ky.
Added Kerry campaign press secretary, Michael Meehan: ''Massachusetts Republicans have tried for decades to defeat John Kerry, and that has failed. Now they hope and pray that John Kerry will quit. Well, that won't work either. Elections work best when the people do the electing, not the politicians."
The Healey attack was followed later in the day by former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole's call for Kerry to resign.
The two events appeared to be a coordinated Republican counter-offensive just hours before a legislative committee on Beacon Hill began to consider a bill that would prevent Romney from filling Kerry's vacated Senate seat if he wins the presidency.
The legislation has drawn the keen interest of both national political parties. Massachusetts Democratic legislators are pushing the bill, which would call for a special election next spring if Kerry wins the presidency; several state Democrats in Congress are considering a run for the seat if it becomes vacant.
In calling for Kerry to resign, Healey became the public voice for national Republicans and Bush campaign officials who have been privately grumbling for months that the Massachusetts senator should be pressured -- by pundits, media columnists, and perhaps members of his own party -- to step down because of his nearly total absence from the Senate chambers since he launched his presidential bid last September.
Bush campaign officials said yesterday that they had shared information on Kerry's missed votes with Romney's office this spring and that there was general agreement that Kerry was politically vulnerable on the matter. Yet the Bush campaign aides insisted that they did not pressure Healey or the governor to call personally for Kerry's resignation.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt yesterday repeated Healey's attack on Kerry as an absentee senator, but stopped short of saying that the Democratic rival should resign his seat.
''The criticism is dead on," he said. ''People in Massachusetts are not being represented by two United States senators, because John Kerry has missed the overwhelming majority of his votes."
Yesterday afternoon, Dole -- the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, who resigned his Senate leadership position just before he was nominated by his party -- reinforced the GOP message during an appearance on CNN. ''I think what he should do is what I did on June 11, 1996, and to say, you know, I want to run for president, and I'm going to walk out of the Senate," Dole said.
When Kerry has skipped Senate votes on high-profile legislation, be it Iraq military funding or prescription drug policies, Republican officials have inundated reporters arguing that Kerry is hypocritical in bashing Bush on those issues while not taking the time to speak out and vote on them. The Bush campaign keeps a running log of Kerry's missed votes, now more than 130 pages long.
Kerry has pledged to return to the Capitol any time his vote would make a decisive difference on an issue. On Super Tuesday, last March 2, for instance, he canceled campaign appearances and rearranged a victory party so he could return to Washington and vote on closely fought gun-control measures, though ultimately his vote did not prove to be crucial.
Republican Party officials say that by raising Kerry's missed votes in tandem with his refusal to resign, they can reinforce the Bush campaign's caricature of him as a flip-flopper: delving into domestic and foreign policy options on the campaign trail, while missing votes and refusing to give way to someone else from Massachusetts to represent voters' interests on those issues.
Romney, avoiding the political fray, did not appear at the press conference, and his aides said he would not be available to speak to reporters. Healey said the governor backed her call for Kerry's resignation. Romney has disavowed any interest in the Senate seat, but Healey aides would neither confirm or deny that she would accept an appointment.
Massachusetts Democrats quickly accused Healey of holding a double standard for not applying her demands to George Bush's run for the presidency in 2000 when he was frequently absent from his duties as Texas governor.
''Arguably, an incumbent governor has many more administrative responsibilities than an incumbent United State senator has," said state Democratic Party chairman Philip Johnston.
Asked if George Bush should have resigned as governor of Texas in 2000, Healey stepped around the question.
''We're talking about John Kerry's current record representing the people of Massachusetts," Healey said. ''My responsibility is toward them. I was elected to represent the people of Massachusetts, just as John Kerry was. John Kerry is not doing his job, and it's incumbent on me to point out the fact that we would be better represented if he were to resign and allow that position to be filled by someone who can devote 100 percent of their time and energy to representing Massachusetts."
Glen Johnson of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Elise Castelli contributed to this report.