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COLUMN ONE : Kennedy in the Fight of His Life : Is Massachusetts senator obsolete and out of touch, or is he an indispensable resource to his state? Mitt Romney, a businessman, threatens to unseat him after 30 years in Senate.


With the apostolic faith common to entrepreneurs made wealthy by their wits, he believed that unfettering markets offered a better prospect for solving society's problems than expanding government. "Ted Kennedy has been, over 32 years, one of the leaders of a course that has not worked," Romney insists.

When Romney decided to run, Republicans exchanged quizzical looks: "We didn't know a single Republican when we jumped in in December," his wife, Ann, says. As a registered independent, Romney had voted in the Democratic presidential primary in 1992 to support Paul E. Tsongas (though he backed George Bush in the general election, he says). He briefly considered running for the Senate seat as an independent as well, his wife says, before rejecting the idea as impractical.

Independence and pragmatism remained at the center of his appeal, though. (Even today, he tries to keep his distance from a national Republican Party still held in some suspicion here: He has refused to sign onto the national GOP "contract" party leaders are pushing in Washington.)

Romney offered himself not as a conservative, but a Weld-like moderate: frugal on spending and insistent that welfare recipients work for their checks, but supporting abortion rights and gay rights and willing to ban assault weapons. Though criticizing Kennedy as soft on crime, he says he would have voted for the reworked crime bill that emerged from bipartisan negotiations last summer.

With that centrist appeal, a significant infusion of his own money and ads touting his claim that he helped to create 10,000 jobs through his business investments, Romney proved the class of the Republican field, and won an overwhelming victory in the GOP primary on Sept. 20.

At 5 the next morning, Kennedy's campaign welcomed Romney to the big leagues with the political equivalent of an inside fastball from Red Sox ace Roger Clemens: a wave of ads attacking Romney's business record, his campaign's central arch.

The ads accused Romney of making $11 million over the past two years, while his largest company--Staples--"provided no health insurance to many workers." Last week, the Kennedy campaign followed with more chin music: more ads accusing Ampad Corp. of Dallas, a company in which Bain invested, of slashing benefits, firing employees and provoking a strike at an Indiana paper plant.

Romney has challenged the facts of these accusations. Staples, he notes, provides health insurance to all its full-time workers; only part-time workers are not covered. And, while expressing regret at the Indiana labor dispute, Romney portrays himself as a bystander: Ampad acquired the Indiana plant only last summer, he says, long after he took a leave of absence to launch his Senate campaign.

More broadly, Romney tries to enlist Kennedy's criticism into his own indictment of the incumbent as an insulated career politician. "This is not Washington, this is the real world," Romney says. "Out of the 50 or 60 businesses I have invested in, about three-fourths have added employment.

"If you say 'he's never had a company that's laid someone off,' that's just silly; 'never had a company that's failed,' that's Washington talk. It's very possible for a senator who's never had a job in his life, never hired an employee, to say, 'my goodness, there's a strike.' "

Romney's formulation underscores a skepticism of government Kennedy still passionately rejects. Almost alone among Democrats this year, Kennedy is running on the liberal faith that government can solve problems--large and small. His ads cite his work on programs like job retraining, Head Start, the minimum wage and student loans--and his success at raining grants and federal contracts on economically parched communities around the state.

Everywhere he goes on the campaign trail, Kennedy matches concerns with programs as though completing a circuit. Taking to global extremes the maxim that all politics is local, he tells the gathering of Cape Verdean natives that he will fight to keep open the U.S. foreign aid office in their homeland. At a fund-raising dinner for a homeless shelter in Boston, he promises to help the organization seek funds from the new Violence Against Women act he helped to shepherd into the crime bill.

Three decades of such attention to the high and low end of legislative affairs has left Kennedy with roots in the state too deep and tangled to be easily extracted. At the homeless shelter dinner, management professor Paul Tortolani said that while he admired Romney he nonetheless planned to vote for Kennedy. "He still delivers," he said. "It's tough to deny that record over 32 years."

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