Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), an Irish Catholic in a state with an overwhelmingly Catholic population, learned a bitter lesson this week about the dangers of introducing religion into a political contest.
Kennedy, who has served in the Senate for 32 years, is running the race of his life againstconservative Republican Mitt Romney, a former Mormon bishop and a self-made millionaire.
Kennedy and Romney are in a virtual dead heat in the Senate race. The most recent poll by Cambridge-based Opinion Dynamics showed 43% of the voters favoring Romney, 42% Kennedy.
Kennedy has drawn criticism throughout the campaign for repeatedly raising questions about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--in particular, the Mormon church's refusal to ordain women and its former practice, abolished in 1978, of barring blacks from the priesthood.
Kennedy also has indulged in theological politicking within his own religious tradition, asserting that the Vatican should ordain women.
Such tactics have earned him stinging rebukes in both journalistic and political circles.
"The Kennedy camp would win more votes standing firmly on secular high ground," declared a Sept. 28 Boston Globe editorial. "It's fine to ask Romney what he thinks about welfare and other social issues, but don't hit him for following the tenets of faith within a religious community."
Charles Manning, Romney's political consultant, said Kennedy was using religion to divert attention from his liberal record on welfare, crime control and other issues. Romney accused the senator of betraying his brother John F. Kennedy's stand against religious bigotry in 1960, when he became the first Roman Catholic to be elected President.
As a result of the criticism, Kennedy has done a dramatic about-face.
"Religion should not be an issue in this campaign," Kennedy told the Associated Press this week. "The way to make it so is to stop talking about it and to focus on issues like jobs, education and health care, which is exactly what I intend to do."
The political differences are clear between Kennedy, a champion of health care reform and programs for the poor, and Romney, a venture capitalist who wants to lower taxes, trim government spending on social programs and institute drug-testing for welfare recipients.
Romney's campaign advertising on welfare reform takes Kennedy to task for helping create the present system. "Despite billions spent over the last 32 years," one ad said, "poverty and illegitimate births are at an all-time high."
The personal differences between the two candidates are even more striking.
In more than three decades of public life, the hard-driving Kennedy has worn his character flaws as openly as his personal charisma. Divorced and now remarried to a divorced mother of two, Kennedy publicly apologized for his heavy drinking and vowed to mend his ways.
In contrast, the Republican Senate candidate, who has never held elected office, has no public record and maintains a squeaky-clean image.
"The most visible and salable advantage Mitt Romney has is his lifestyle: his beautiful wife, five sons," said Romney supporter and fellow Mormon Tony Kimball, a professor of government at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. "There's no dirt to dig up on Mitt Romney. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, there's no extra-marital sex, no premarital sex."
But the clean-cut Mormon lifestyle has a political downside of its own, Kimball said.
"The public perception of Mormons is that they're just too goody-goody or that they want to exclude people who are not of their kind," he said. "There's a perception out there that with no apparent flaws people can identify with, Romney is just too good to be true."
In the view of Robert Royal, a conservative analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, the flap over religion in the Massachusetts Senate race only proves that it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine exactly who is good and what is true in the political arena.
"It's a whole lot easier to attack people for their religious beliefs these days than for their political positions," Royal said. "All sides seem to be cynically manipulating religion. We cannot tar politicians for their religion any more than we can attack them for their personal sins. If we were all saints, we'd already be in heaven."