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Kerry seeks to head off primary battle

Supporters set to challenge O'Reilly at party convention

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 7, 2008

He's been in federal office for 23 years. He was his party's presidential nominee in 2004 and his $9.2 million campaign war chest dwarfs that of any of his opponents. And yet, US Senator John F. Kerry finds himself in a situation where he may have his first primary challenge since taking office in 1984.

As the state's top Democratic Party officials hold their convention today at the Paul E. Tsongas Arena in Lowell, Kerry supporters are hoping to deny challenger Ed O'Reilly a spot on the ballot.

O'Reilly, a Gloucester lawyer and former commercial lobsterman, has met all the requirements so far, including meeting with party officials, attending scores of local meetings to introduce himself, and gathering 10,000 signatures.

But unless he can garner 15 percent of the vote from party leaders today, he won't make the ballot.

Kerry, meanwhile, is paying to bus a group from Springfield to Lowell, his campaign said. His staff insists that hitching a ride won't require giving Kerry their vote. The senator is also trying to make certain that he gets at least 51 percent of the vote - the number needed to get the party's official endorsement.

If Kerry, 64, is unable to thwart O'Reilly, 54, few predict that the senator would be vulnerable in a primary race. But it could mean more campaigning this summer - and, depending how much support O'Reilly gets, it could be an embarrassment for the former presidential candidate.

"We are expecting to have an overwhelming victory. We are going to win this convention, I have no doubt in my mind," said Roger Lau, campaign manager for Kerry. "We're not taking anyone's support for granted."

But Kerry could face problems, from a large contingent of Hillary Clinton supporters who were upset with his endorsement of Barack Obama; from lingering resentment over his Iraq war vote; and from those who simply don't want to deny O'Reilly a spot on the ballot.

Several speakers at today's convention plan to mention Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who will be recovering from brain surgery at Duke Medical Center until at least Monday. Party leaders are also planning to distribute blue "Tedstrong" wristbands as a sign of support akin to the yellow "Livestrong" wristbands that Lance Armstrong has used to raise money for cancer research.

O'Reilly, a former city councilor, voted for Kerry in the 2004 presidential race but is challenging the senator largely on the issues that plagued Kerry during that quest.

O'Reilly said yesterday Kerry did not oppose the Iraq war strongly enough and that spending on the war has diverted money from other areas such as education. He also said Kerry hasn't been aggressive enough on expanding healthcare coverage or embracing same-sex marriage.

"I'm a working-class guy; I know what it's like to work for a living, week to week on a paycheck," he said. "I think that John Kerry's afraid he will not be able to control the outcome beyond [today] and he doesn't want to give the people of Massachusetts an option to vote for another Democrat."

Kerry, in his fourth six-year term, has not had a serious challenge since Governor William F. Weld, a Republican, in 1996, and hasn't had a primary opponent since 1984, when Kerry and three other Democrats ran for a seat vacated by Paul Tsongas.

While even fellow Democrats joke about Kerry's absence from Massachusetts, his public appearances in recent months have seen a noticeable uptick, with local events in communities across the state, including addressing graduates at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He also was among the bold-faced names at the Boston Celtics game on Thursday night.

Kerry is not helped by persistent speculation among political insiders that, should Obama win the presidency in November, the Massachusetts senator could win a post as secretary of state.

In the general election, Kerry would face Republican Jeff Beatty, a 55-year-old Army veteran from Harwich.

Another Republican, Jim Ogonowski, who was his party's favored candidate, failed on Tuesday to qualify for the GOP primary ballot, delivering 30 signatures shy of the 10,000 he needed.

Ogonowski, a 50-year-old Dracut farmer, issued a statement yesterday afternoon saying he would leave the race.

"The facts are the facts," he said. "For a variety of reasons, we did not meet the signature requirements."

A poll released last week indicated that 63 percent of Massachusetts residents would vote for Kerry over either Beatty or Ogonowski. The poll, which was conducted by Rasmussen Reports and did not test Kerry against O'Reilly, said that 61 percent of Massachusetts voters have a favorable view of Kerry.

Before O'Reilly can be included in the next poll, he needs to make sure he clears the threshold at today's convention.

"If I don't get that 15 percent, there will be a lot of sailing and golf this summer," O'Reilly said. "What an awful thought."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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