The shadow campaign for US Senator John F. Kerry's seat saw light yesterday, with US Representative Barney Frank blanketing the airwaves of Eastern Massachusetts with television ads aimed at boosting his profile for the race that would occur if Kerry wins the White House.
Frank, a Democrat whose district spreads from Newton to Fall River, has purchased $350,000 of air time, mostly on Boston television stations. He faces a challenge for his House seat from a little-known independent candidate whose campaign adviser all but concedes he can't win.
In an interview yesterday, Frank acknowledged that the advertising blitz, the first he has launched since a reelection battle in 1982, is designed in part to lay the groundwork for a potential race for the US Senate seat that Kerry would vacate.
''The best way to win any campaign is before the campaign begins," Frank said. He said he can legally use the funds because he is talking about issues relevant to his congressional race at the same time he is enhancing his position for the potential statewide Senate race.
Frank's media blitz underscores the intense battle for Kerry's seat that has already begun among some of the state's most powerful politicians. Other would-be candidates are positioning themselves, financially and strategically.
Two of Frank's likely Democratic rivals, US Representatives Edward Markey of Malden, the dean of the Massachusetts delegation, and Martin Meehan of Lowell, are in a campaign fund-raising duel. Former attorney general Scott Harshbarger is talking to supporters as he considers a run, and Middlesex District Attorney Martha J. Coakley has announced she will run if the seat opens.
Massachusetts Republicans, meanwhile, have spent much of the last year rebuilding the state GOP, and would attempt to use their newly created system of voter identification and network of campaign workers to help elect a Republican to Kerry's seat should Bush lose.
Frank, however, has shown particular interest in recent weeks. He's established his first politically high-powered team in more than two decades, including Dan Payne, a veteran media consultant; Jack Walsh, a former top campaign aide to Kevin White and Michael Dukakis; and Celinda Lake, a national Democratic consultant and pollster.
Such a staff would be excessive for his congressional contest. Frank faces a conservative radio talk-show host and businessman, Charles A. Morse of Brookline, who is running as an independent. Morse has about $140,000 in his campaign account and little name recognition. ''We regard ourselves as a long shot, but stranger things have happened in the long history of Massachusetts politics," said his communications consultant, Ben Kilgore.
Walsh, who now specializes in consulting and organizing for ballot-question campaigns around the country, said that Frank and the other potential candidates cannot afford to wait, particularly as the state political world ventures into the uncharted waters of a special US Senate race.
''This is very, very unusual," said Walsh, a 34-year veteran of the Massachusetts political wars, referring to the unusual political situation that Kerry's presidential candidacy has created.
The Democrat-controlled Legislature earlier this year took the power of appointing a senator to fill a vacancy away from the governor, and created a system by which an election must be held within 160 days after a senator declares he is vacating the seat. For the first time in almost a century, a statewide campaign will take place in an off year and during a compressed period that includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and Hanukkah.
That move has left potential candidates shadow-boxing over a race that may never take place and for which there are no blueprints to follow. ''Who has ever put together a campaign during the holidays?" Walsh said.
The Frank ads portray him as a liberal advocate who has taken on banking interests, George Bush and Dick Cheney, Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, the Iraq war, and the Patriot Act. Theyalso promote some of the local issues he has worked on, such as helping New Bedford fishermen and getting federal transportation dollars to his district.
One scene shows Frank getting under Greenspan's skin at a congressional hearing during which the Fed chairman loses his usual unflappable demeanor under the congressman's grilling.
And humorously complying with the new requirement for candidates to verbally approve ads, Frank intones at the end: ''I'm Barney Frank, and I approved this message. I mean, who else would?"
According to Federal Election Commission reports, Meehan has raised $2.7 million through Sept. 30 of this year and has $4.1 million in his campaign account, while Markey has collected $2.5 million in the same period and has $2.6 million overall.
Frank raised just over $1 million during the same time period and has $490,296 in the bank. His recent $350,000 media buy will take a large chunk of those funds. Another House colleague looking at the race, Stephen Lynch of South Boston, raised $924,836 through Sept. 30, raising his account to just over $508,000.
Meehan, who is facing minimal opposition for releection, said yesterday that he has no plans to buy television time before the Nov. 2 election. A spokesman for Markey, who has a conservative Republican opponent, said the congressman is laying plans for TV ads.
The ads and the furious fund-raising also reflect a trend in Masachusetts this year in which political leaders are using the fall campaign to build support for future races. US Representative Michael Capuano, testing the water for a potential run for governor, is spending $275,000 for ads although he has no opponent.