BOSTON — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has suffered extensive political damage as a result of publicity over rape charges involving his nephew, William Kennedy Smith--as well as his own conduct--in West Palm Beach, Fla., last spring. But how long the damage will endure is uncertain.
Interviews by The Times last week show that voter chagrin over recent headlines generated by Kennedy remain uncharacteristically strong in the Boston area that has been his stronghold. But the problem may be on the mend.
BACKGROUND: The plunge in Kennedy's standing was underscored in a poll taken in July by the Boston Herald: In a hypothetical Senate matchup against Republican Gov. William F. Weld, Kennedy received only 34% of the vote to Weld's 59%.
Only 44% of the 400 Massachusetts voters surveyed gave Kennedy, who is now serving his sixth term in the Senate, a job performance rating of "good" or "excellent."
That was a dramatic decline in support for the heir of a royal political family who won reelection by more than 800,000 votes less than three years ago and who has become, during 29 years in the Senate, the most prominent spokesman for a raft of liberal causes. And the poll quickened the pulses of Massachusetts Republicans long frustrated by their inability to pierce the Kennedy aura.
If Kennedy does run again (and he says he will), potential challengers include Weld, Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci and White House aide Andrew H. Card.
Reflecting the present disenchantment with Kennedy, longtime supporter Vicki Kluse said he "doesn't set a good moral example with his almost juvenile behavior. In 1994, I'll be on the fence. I could vote for a Republican."
But more recent poll data--and soundings taken by political strategists in both parties here--show that, barring any new disclosures, the worst may be over for the Kennedy family's current patriarch.
A recent poll for the Boston Globe showed that 53% of the voters here view Kennedy "favorably" and 33% view him "unfavorably." The remaining 14% said they were uncertain.
Interviews by The Times show similar sentiments among voters. Barry Constantine, a file clerk, said he is "disappointed" by recent developments and doesn't think Kennedy "is a great role model for his family."
"But I'd still vote for him," Constantine said, because "I like his stands on gun control, abortion and so on."
And Nanette Dumas, an office space analyst, said that, although she wishes Kennedy "could find help on higher (moral) ground," she will continue supporting him because "there are so few good liberals out there."
The reasons for the apparent bottoming out of Kennedy's political problems are not clear. Aides believe he was helped significantly when prosecutors said he was not a suspect in an inquiry into whether police were obstructed in their initial investigation of the rape allegation against Smith.
The aides contend also that Kennedy is benefiting from a growing perception by the public that he should not be held responsible for the actions of Smith, a nephew who is 30 years old.
THE OUTLOOK: Kennedy's "image doctors" have prescribed a low profile until the Smith trial is over. He was unusually subdued in his questioning of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas at Senate hearings last week.
But, with the Smith trial delayed until Jan. 13, Kennedy's attempt to lie low is being strained. Some expect him to display his old fire when Democrats press fights with President Bush over unemployment benefits, civil rights and health insurance.
As for the 1994 election, Kennedy aides contend that the unfavorable Herald poll was only a "snapshot" and the man who survived Chappaquiddick two decades ago has plenty of time to bounce back.
State Treasurer Joseph D. Malone, a Republican whom Kennedy defeated in 1988, agrees. "While the mood of the public toward Sen. Kennedy may be negative right now, there's quite a lot of goodwill toward him, and I wouldn't count him out just yet," Malone said.