Senate field hinges on Kennedy decision

With Massachusetts having paid its final respects to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the politics of succession begins in earnest this week - candidates will emerge, a race will take shape, and the Kennedy clan will have to reveal whether it wants to keep the seat in the family.

All eyes now are on Joseph P. Kennedy II, the former US representative, with family members and political allies expecting him to make a decision very shortly on whether to enter the Democratic primary.

No other Kennedy of his generation with the political stature to step into the role has signaled interest in it, according to Democratic insiders and people close to the family. And Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the senator’s widow, who many expected would be a likely candidate, so far has indicated she is not interested in succeeding her husband, those close to her have said.

“Joe Kennedy, as emotionally drained as he must be, cannot help but be moved by the outpouring of affection and respect that has come from people all over the country in the last several days,’’ said Dan Payne, a longtime Democratic media consultant. “I’m not saying he is going to run, but he wouldn’t be human and he wouldn’t be a Kennedy if he didn’t give serious thought to running for the so-called Kennedy seat.’’

Payne said Kennedy’s decision to run would have a huge impact.

“His candidacy in a special election would force all other candidates - real or imagined - to think twice about whether they want to take on a Kennedy so close to Senator Kennedy’s death,’’ he said.

Joe Kennedy’s decision is likely to determine the plans of the dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, US Representative Edward J. Markey, who is telling associates he is seriously considering running, and US Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat who is also thinking of joining the primary race. Both are Kennedy loyalists and would not run against a member of the family, according to people familiar with their thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal political calculations.

Two other major Democratic figures considering entering the race - Attorney General Martha Coakley and US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, the South Boston Democrat - have told associates they plan to compete for the primary nomination no matter who enters.

For months, and particularly over the past week, as the state and nation mourned Ted Kennedy’s death, these potential successors have been operating under a self-imposed code of silence. Some have hinted privately for months of their interest in running for the seat. But now, delicately, they are likely to begin to emerge publicly, in part because they have to start building a robust campaign: According to a special election calendar under consideration by state leaders, the election would be held in January; a primary would be held in December.

Joe Kennedy, who served in the House from 1987 to 1999, has remained silent about his intentions. Those who know him say he is highly ambivalent about plunging back into the rough and tumble of politics, although he is being urged by some relatives to do so, according to people close to him and his family.

Some friends question whether Kennedy, who has for the past 10 years immersed himself in his energy company, which provides discounted heating oil to low-income people, could overcome his hesitation and subject himself to such intense scrutiny.

But Kennedy’s speech Friday night at the memorial service at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, in which he talked about public service and called on his generation to follow his uncle’s example, persuaded some political analysts and insiders that he is considering reentering public life. Kennedy could not be reached for comment yesterday.

To be sure, he has proven he can generate huge enthusiasm among crowds, but his political performances in the past have been uneven. His work at Citizens Energy, highlighted in ads that have blitzed Boston television in past winters, has kept him in the public eye with a very flattering image. But his clumsy attempt to annul his first marriage, which blew up when the Vatican, in a response to an appeal by his former wife, overturned the Boston Archdiocese’s decision granting it, reflected what his critics say: that he can be at times imperious, temperamental, and bullying.

The senator’s eldest son, Edward M. Kennedy Jr., also gained some stature at his father’s funeral Mass Saturday with what many considered the most memorable tribute at the events for the senator. He lives in Connecticut but owns a house in Hyannis Port. This would not be an issue, however, as there is no residency requirement of a US Senate seat. But he has given no indication publicly that he is interested in the seat.

As for Markey, he has seniority in the House with Democrats now controlling the chamber, and he might be reluctant to give it up. Markey, a Malden Democrat, had assumed that Vicki Kennedy would run, and until recently was making it clear he had no interest in the seat, according to those with knowledge of his thinking.

Markey declined to comment yesterday. His reported interest in the race, though, adds a new dynamic. His stature as the dean of the delegation and his ability to raise funds from across the country would make him a major contender. He has nearly $2.8 million in the bank, and he is a leader in Congress on global warming, energy independence, and technology - a profile that could play well in a Democratic primary race.

On the Republican side, former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey is seriously considering running, those close to her have confirmed. Other potential GOP candidates could include state Senator Scott Brown of Wrentham and former US attorney Michael Sullivan.

Clarification: A Page One story Monday on the race to succeed Edward M. Kennedy referred imprecisely to residency requirements for US Senate candidates. A candidate does not have to live in Massachusetts to launch a Senate campaign, but would have to live in the state at the time of the election. 

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