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Prominent Democrats want Kennedy's widow to run for his Senate seat

By Mary Ann Akers and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010; A03

Nearly one year after Edward M. Kennedy's death, prominent Democrats in Washington and Massachusetts are promoting his widow as the party's best shot at winning back the Senate seat he held for nearly five decades.

Though she has seemed to bat down the idea of challenging Sen. Scott Brown (R) in 2012, Victoria Reggie Kennedy has been in some ways acting the part of a candidate. She has raised her public profile by campaigning for other politicians and appearing at events across the country.

The prospect of her candidacy is fast becoming a source of family tension, according to several Kennedy intimates. Some relatives fear that a campaign against Brown -- a popular figure even in liberal Massachusetts -- would distract Kennedy from promoting her late husband's legacy, they said.

(Photos: The life and career of Ted Kennedy)

Vicki Kennedy, a lawyer from a powerful political family in Louisiana who married into the Kennedy dynasty in 1992, declined to be interviewed for this article. She passed up the chance to run for the seat last year, and several confidants said she has told them that she has no plans to run this time.

But some party leaders have been quietly promoting her as their preferred candidate. They believe her stature and the goodwill she earned after her husband's death on Aug. 25 put her in a uniquely strong position.

Phil Johnston, a former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said he and many others have urged her to run, and Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) said she would be "a superb candidate, no question."

"Does she have it? Yeah, she's got it in spades," said Delahunt, a close friend of Kennedy's. "Anyone would tout her if you're trying to recruit candidates."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is among those quietly promoting her candidacy, according to several Democratic sources in Massachusetts. Schumer declined to comment.

In an interview, however, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), the youngest of Edward Kennedy's three children, said he wished his stepmother would focus her energy exclusively on raising money to build the endowment of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate, a nonprofit organization that aims to inspire future leaders.

"As a politician, it's not as if I don't get frustrated by seeing the opportunities missed in the last year for amazing events with this president, this speaker and others who have demonstrated their willingness time and again to honor Dad's legacy," said Kennedy, who battles drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness and has long had a troubled relationship with this stepmother. "You know the phrase, 'You make hay while the sun shines?' This was the year to do it."

His brother, Edward Kennedy Jr., has also expressed concern that a campaign would distract her from the institute, people familiar with his thinking said. The sources would discuss the sensitive family matter only on condition of anonymity.

Jack Connors, the nonprofit's finance director, said Vicki Kennedy's political activities are "not at the expense of the institute." The organization has nearly met its $120 million fundraising goal, he said.

"Vicki Kennedy has the best Rolodex and the most energy of our team," he said.

Making the rounds

In the past year, Vicki Kennedy has given high school and college commencement addresses across the country, accepted awards in Ireland and Washington, spoken at the Massachusetts Democratic convention, and mingled at a dinner for Senate spouses.

This spring, she quietly lobbied wavering lawmakers to support the health-care overhaul, long a top priority for her husband. She has been tapped, along with former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, to co-chair a multimillion-dollar public relations effort to sell the reform to the American public before the midterm congressional elections.

Kennedy has co-hosted fundraisers for Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). She traveled to West Virginia in July to eulogize the late senator Robert C. Byrd.

She is endearing herself in particular to Massachusetts Democrats, hosting events for Reps. Barney Frank, James McGovern, Richard Neal and Niki Tsongas. She is headlining a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this fall. And she has appeared at several donor events for Gov. Deval Patrick (D), with another dinner planned for him in September.

For Vicki Kennedy, the appearances are "intoxicating" and "flattering," said one family insider. "It's an ego trip," this source added, but also predicted that's where the flirtation will end.

In an interview for a Boston Globe Magazine story published online Saturday, Vicki Kennedy said she could not see herself running for her husband's seat, but did not rule it out.

"When you get into that level, of really thinking about really living his life, that's a step that's just, just too hard," she said.

Yet among those who had encouraged her to run, she told the Globe, was her late husband.

A tough race

Retaking the seat held by Edward Kennedy from 1962 until his death -- and previously by his brother, the late president John F. Kennedy -- will be a top priority for Democrats in 2012. But Brown, who has distanced himself from the GOP on some high-profile issues, is now the most popular politician in Massachusetts, according to a June poll by the Globe. Among those surveyed, 55 percent said they view Brown favorably, while only 18 percent said they view him unfavorably.

Gerry Harrington, a Kennedy family friend and Washington consultant with ties to Boston, said he thinks it will take a "Herculean effort" to defeat Brown. "I would think it would take a Kennedy to beat him," Harrington said. "Logic would dictate Vicki would be it."

She is not the only family member viewed as a potential candidate. Former Massachusetts congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, a son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, had considered running for the seat; family friends said he has all but ruled it out, however, in part because of Brown's popularity and the money required to run a competitive race. The same goes for his son Joseph P. Kennedy III, who is viewed as a political up-and-comer in the family.

Bob Crowe, a longtime Democratic fundraiser in Boston, said he would support Vicki Kennedy if she runs. "Not only is she the senator's widow, but she is a very accomplished person in her own right," Crowe said. "She comes from a very astute political family. And she's loved in Massachusetts."

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