BOSTON In Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy, seeking another term in the Senate, is very much the issue -- and very much the favorite to win.
Ray Shamie, Kennedy's millionaire-inventor opponent, has made Kennedy the issue because that's the only hope for a long-shot challenger to a popular incumbent. And Kennedy has volunteered to make himself the issue, not to beat Shamie this fall but to prepare for what could be his next election campaign -- the presidential contest in 1984.
Through his own TV commercials, Shamie created a free-media issue by offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who could deliver Ted Kennedy for a debate. Kennedy cleverly told a Catholic school for retarded children that he would debate and the school could take the cash. But Shamie came right back by personally presenting the 10 grand to the school while the cameras rolled.
Shamie also has a sense of humor. In one spot his announcer says over soft music: "Ted Kennedy wants taxes to go up automatically every year. . . ." The screen is dominated by a huge book, as thick as a medical encyclopedia, which is turning slowly toward the viewer. As more is heard about Kennedy's commitment to higher taxes, the title of the book finally becomes legible: "I.R.S. -- 1984 SHORT FORM."
The Kennedy campaign has devoted most of its $800,000 paid media budget to producing and airing five- minute spots with individuals testifying to Edward Kennedy's fortitude and compassion. The daughter of the late Robert Kennedy speaks lovingly of her uncle cheering everybody up at her engagement party on the very day he had learned that his son had cancer. A priest tells of Kennedy comforting a boy who is dying. A nurse recalls Kennedy spending every night with his son, who was in the hospital to have his leg amputated: "If young Teddy couldn't sleep at night, his father was there and he could talk to him."
While a senior citizen activist concedes: "He's not a plaster saint . . . not without faults," the consensus is that this senator, like his family, has met both triumph and tragedy and has prevailed.
In the 1980 Democratic primary campaign, Jimmy Carter -- who originally ran for national office as the Plains, Ga., answer to St. Francis of Assisi -- was able to overcome his pervasive altruism. Carter ran TV spots emphasizing his own virtues as a husband in transparent contrast to Sen. Kennedy's troubled personal life. In Massachusetts, where Edward Kennedy could probably win reelection campaigning in an orange taffeta dress, the "character issue" probably can't make a dent in his enormous popularity. But he evidently wants to start dealing with the issue now as a prelude to a possible run for the presidency.
Whether such commercials can adequately deal with Kennedy's national political liabilities is problematical. These filmed testimonials sometimes are maudlin and sometimes genuinely affecting, but it is difficult to understand how Kennedy, with Chappaquiddick and other travails hovering over him, can win votes by emphasizing his good character.