HYANNIS PORT -- Ted Kennedy knows he is keeper of a special flame. As he guides guests around his own beloved home, he points to the wooden stairs that brother Jack had romped down en route to the beach, and the window of the bedroom where mother Rose spent her last years.
Recently, he added a new story: He and his wife, Vicki, were having coffee one cold morning in May 2002 when a knock came at the door. ''Someone said there's a person in a bicycle outfit at the front door," he said. ''And I went out and there was John Kerry."
Kerry, then 58, had suited up for the Hyannis Port Challenge, a charity race organized by Kennedy's nephew Anthony Shriver, and pedaled the 76 miles from the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston to the Kennedy hometown of Hyannis. He beat men half his age.
Kennedy tells the story with an air of discovery, noting that yes, my goodness, Kerry has reservoirs of determination that are not always visible. But the story carries metaphorical weight for both men: Kerry rides a long, hard path to the door of the big clapboard house so full of history. He mounts the stairs and knocks on the door. And Kennedy lets him in.
For Massachusetts politicians of Kerry's generation, there has been but one path to the presidency, the one blazed by the Kennedys. And there is but one great role model, John F. Kennedy, who brought glamour to public service.
There are people tied to John F. Kennedy by inspiration and those tied to him by blood, and the former always have taken a back seat to the latter. Neither coat-holder nor heir, Kerry reached his political maturity in the shadow of both President Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, whose senatorial career eclipsed his own.
Over the past year, a transformation took place. Kerry did not just bring JFK's inspiration onto the presidential campaign trail, like erstwhile Massachusetts-bred contenders Michael S. Dukakis and Paul Tsongas. Kerry ran a campaign headed by Senator Kennedy's former aides and assisted by the senator himself. In the process, Kerry broke through the mysterious barrier that separates Kennedys and non-Kennedys to stand beside the senior senator on equal footing.
Now, as Kennedy prepares to address the Democratic National Convention, another transformation is taking place. After devoting unprecedented energy to helping Kerry secure the party's presidential nomination, Kennedy is expected to stand aside -- to assume a role firing up Democrats with attacks on President Bush but otherwise removing himself from the center of the campaign.
Party leaders in Massachusetts and across the nation can only wonder if such a thing can happen easily, if the Kerry-Kennedy partnership can fade to the background so that Kerry-Edwards can go on to the White House.
How smooth a transformation it will be remains to be seen. It's a role few in Massachusetts foresaw for Kennedy. It's a role few foresaw for Kerry.
The Kennedys' hold on Kerry
Long before the 2004 campaign, the Kennedy spirit was encoded into Kerry's personality.
As a student at Yale University, Kerry often talked to his best friend David Thorne about his admiration for President Kennedy and once dragged him to a rally for the president in New Haven. There were hecklers in the crowd, their taunts going off like firecrackers.
Still, Kerry was ''mesmerized," Thorne recalled. ''The aura of the family, the impact Kennedy had on the world -- all those things were mesmerizing to John."
While in the Kennedy thrall, Kerry began dating Janet Auchincloss, half sister of Jacqueline Kennedy, and got invited to join the family at Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss mansion in Newport, R.I.
He showed up with a big camera around his neck. While 16-year-old Bill Clinton could only pump President Kennedy's hand during a Boys Nation visit to the White House, Kerry was already aboard the Kennedy sailboat, no less of an eager supplicant.
''He talked about that as an amazing experience," Thorne recalled. ''He said . . . this guy came up to him and said, 'Hey, how are you doing?' It was President Kennedy. [Kerry] was beyond impressed."
Kerry and Thorne were playing soccer when the news trickled out that Kennedy had been assassinated. Then, five years later, Kerry was with Thorne again, having just returned from Vietnam, when Robert Kennedy was shot.
''It was a shocking event," Thorne said. ''He was just, 'My God, another one, on the back of Martin Luther King.' "
On another side of the country, Ted Kennedy stood at the bedside of his dying brother. During the deathwatch, people whispered to Ted about taking over Bobby's campaign for the presidency, according to biographer Adam Clymer; they kept asking him about it even as a train carried Bobby's body back east for burial.
The notion of a Kennedy restoration had gripped much of the nation since President Kennedy's death. After Bobby's assassination, the burden fell on Ted's shoulders and grew heavier as years went by and he did not enter the race: In 1972, Kennedy was too wounded by the scandal surrounding the death of a young woman after his car accident on Chappaquiddick Island; in 1976, he was consumed with his son Teddy Jr.'s battle with cancer.
By 1980, when he finally ran for president, writers spoke of what Garry Wills later dubbed the ''Kennedy imprisonment," a culture of lost hopes that dragged down the Kennedys and the country. Kennedy failed to beat President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination, and despite the urging of liberals to make another run for the presidency, turned his attention to the Senate.
Always prominent because of his family name, Kennedy now assumed a level of primacy in the Senate by virtue of seniority. A passionate champion of health care and education, Kennedy suddenly invested his Senate career with even greater energy, gaining strength although the country's politics turned rightward.
He still carried the Kennedy flag, but now it was firmly planted in the Senate.
'We have to get along'
In 1985, at Kerry's first staff meeting as the Massachusetts junior senator, he told the assembled aides, ''We have to get along with Teddy and his people."
Kennedy was on his way toward amassing a staff of more than 100, a veritable think tank whose alumni include Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, political strategist Robert Shrum, and former Democratic National Committee chairmen Paul Kirk and the late Ron Brown.
Kerry had about half as many people, and their influence paled in comparison.
Moreover, Kennedy claimed broad swaths of policy making as his sphere of influence. Kerry, taking a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee, would have to make his own reputation -- and stay off Kennedy's turf.
''There was a perception that issues like health care and education were in the Kennedy realm, and issues like international affairs and things like that were in Kerry's realm," a former Kennedy aide said. ''When you get into things that affected Massachusetts at the time, they all fell on Kennedy's side of the docket. There was tension at the time over how hard and fast those lines were drawn. When either of us crossed the others' lines, that's when things got out of control."
Kennedy's hard work and clout in social services assured a steady stream of ribbon-cuttings and grant announcements back home; Kerry's energies were consumed with Nicaragua and Vietnam.
Whispers from the Kennedy office suggested that Kerry was a bit distracted and aloof. But the Kerry camp painted a more complicated picture: Their boss accepted the notion that he had to defer to Kennedy or risk alienating his most crucial political ally. And Kennedy was not hesitant about protecting his turf, former aides to both men recall.
When Kerry, girding for a possible career-ending race against Governor William Weld in 1996, unveiled a plan for universal health care for children, Kennedy was livid, an aide recalled.
Even when Kerry was gearing up for his presidential run, Kennedy aides objected to the junior senator showing up at a news conference announcing Boston as the site of the 2004 convention. Kennedy and Mayor Thomas M. Menino had delivered the prize, the aides said, and Kerry should not have been allowed to clamber onstage for a photo op.
Kennedy, speaking to Globe reporters last year, acknowledged that some ''tensions" had existed between the two senatorial staffs. When asked to list Kerry's accomplishments, Kennedy mentioned mostly foreign affairs. ''He is by nature an investigative figure," Kennedy said last year. ''You can investigate and then legislate. He's investigated, and you could say on Vietnam and policies on arms control he has had an important impact."
Still, bad blood between aides to the two men did not spill over into the personal relations between the senators. Kennedy prizes his closeness to Senate colleagues, including those on the Republican side. And Kerry was more careful than his predecessor, Tsongas, to maintain a collegial relationship with his senior colleague.
In the '90s, each of the divorced senators remarried and found themselves becoming closer friends in the process. Kerry's new wife, Teresa Heinz, widow of the late Senator H. John Heinz III of Pennsylvania, was friends with Kennedy's new wife, Victoria, whose parents have a home near the Kerrys on Nantucket.
But even as the 2004 race approached, Kerry's staff was confident of Kennedy's endorsement yet unsure how hard he would work to help Kerry win the White House.
Rumors reached the Kerry team that Kennedy was offering tips on presidential politics to Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the fresh-faced young Democrat who had become something of a Kennedy protege in his first four years in the Senate.
Kerry, for his part, was eager to make his Kennedy connection an advantage. One way or the other, he would get tied to Kennedy, aides said.
''I thank you for welcoming this refugee from Massachusetts, which is the Wampanoag Indian name meaning 'Land of Many Kennedys,' " Kerry quipped at Kerry's first campaign rally in Iowa in January 2003.
The loyalty factor
When Dukakis and Tsongas had run for president, Kennedy stayed firmly in the background, said Clymer, the author of ''Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography."
Kennedy's ambitions were focused elsewhere. In the late '80s and early '90s, another generation of Kennedys was getting ready to hit the political scene, and Uncle Ted was an eager patron.
But while Kennedy's son Patrick found a niche -- as a congressman from Rhode Island -- most Kennedy cousins did not. Joseph P. Kennedy II cut a swath through the US House before retiring after two scandals: his ex-wife Sheila's objection to his request to annul their marriage and his brother Michael's affair with an underage babysitter. Tragedy intervened as well, when Michael Kennedy died in a skiing accident and John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash.
Max Kennedy's planned run for a House seat from Massachusetts ended before the primary, and former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who was sometimes mentioned for the national ticket, lost a big lead and her state's governorship in 2002.
By early 2003, Kennedy was growing angry with the Bush administration, fueled by his objections to the Iraq war and his bitterness over the president's failure to fully fund the No Child Left Behind education program. Kennedy said Bush had broken a personal promise to put more money into the program.
Kerry became Kennedy's vehicle for driving Bush out of office. Still, the extent of his dedication to Kerry's campaign stunned supporters.
At a fund-raiser at the Kennedy compound while Kerry was trailing former Vermont governor Howard Dean by double digits in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, Kennedy fired up the disheartened crowd by announcing in his distinctive accent, ''I smell victory in the ay-ah."
According to a Kerry adviser who was present, ''It was like seeing an old movie with these steeds, their nostrils starting to flare, and he's pawing the earth, and his head is twisting in the bridle.
''The loyalty factor is huge. A number of people endorsed and disappeared. Kennedy did not disappear. He was there at the grimmest moments. You really want that man in your corner."
Ultimately, when Kerry decided to change his campaign leadership last fall, he handed the whole effort to Kennedy intimates. Shrum ruled as master strategist. Mary Beth Cahill moved over from the Kennedy staff to become Kerry's campaign manager. Former Kennedy press secretary Stephanie Cutter took over the communications operation.
And finally, the 71-year-old senator took himself to Iowa and started shaking hands, knocking on doors, and shouting Kerry's name at rallies. He helped propel Kerry to one of the great comebacks in presidential politics.
A GOP target
Now, Kennedy has no doubt that Kerry will become president. He speaks with the confidence of a man who knows the end of the story. His only concern seems to be how much damage by the Bush administration before Kerry takes over. ''When I heard of the threats to Boston, I thought, 'That's just what we've been saying all along -- deal with Al Qaeda first,' " he said, sounding both sorrowful and angry.
But the 2004 campaign is not over, and there are growing signs that Kennedy will be a big target. Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, features Kennedy in a scare ad. So does the National Rifle Association. And despite having passed the scepter to Hillary Rodham Clinton as the liberal that conservatives most love to hate, Kennedy is making a return appearance in Republican National Committee fund-raising appeals.
Kennedy seems to relish the spotlight. In April, he set off a wave of comparisons by dubbing the Iraq war ''Bush's Vietnam." Last month, he said Bush had allowed nuclear proliferation to continue while chasing ''the mirage of a threat" in Iraq.
Republicans said the attacks were coordinated with the Kerry campaign, as a good-cop, bad-cop effort to raise doubts about Bush. But Kennedy lets it be known that he does not have to coordinate anything with anyone.
''I notified John before all of them and talked to him about some of them," Kennedy said.
Yet some Democrats worry that if Kennedy remains highly visible, his vitriol could turn some swing voters away from Kerry. Having channeled a lifetime of political good will into Kerry's campaign, Kennedy now must step aside so that a lifetime of hard knocks does not get transferred as well. ''There are a lot of people in Middle America who don't know what to think of John Kerry but know what to think of his pal Teddy," a Kerry associate said. ''I worry about it a lot."
Few think Kerry or his top aides, with their gratitude toward Kennedy, would ever nudge the senior senator aside. Rather, some hope that Kennedy, like a proud parent at graduation, will be content to watch from a seat in the back of the hall.
For his part, Kennedy seems unwilling to leave the stage but content to play a supporting role.
''My greatest bonus in this campaign will be when John sends his health bill to the Senate and his education bill to the Senate, I'll be there to fight for them," he said. ''That's going to be my joy and my satisfaction."