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A New Man

The Ted Kennedy walking the Senate halls is a far cry from the one of two years ago. He's trimmer, more focused--and on a roll.

May 10, 1996|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — He bounds out of bed at 6 every morning, eager to attack his treadmill. He arrives at his Senate office hours ahead of most of his colleagues, huddling with aides to plot political strategy. With newfound zeal and with considerable success, he prods and pushes and cajoles fellow Democrats to support his legislative obsessions.

In a remarkable display of political and personal renewal, Edward M. Kennedy is suddenly back at the top of his form.

Two years ago, he was a wreck: tired, bloated and on the brink of losing the Massachusetts Senate seat he had held for 30 years. Now, fit and focused, he is giving Senate Republicans--especially Majority Leader Bob Dole--an unexpected drubbing at what was supposed to be the height of the GOP revolution.

"He's aggravating a number of Republicans no end--and he relishes that," said Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, a Kansas Republican who is working closely with Kennedy on health reform. In particular, she said, Dole "doesn't like it at all."

For weeks, Kennedy has had Dole turning legislative back flips to avoid votes on the politically potent issue of increasing the minimum wage. But Kennedy is no mere liberal heckler. As co-sponsor or lead Democrat on two of this year's major pieces of legislation, he has been more prominent on the Senate floor over the past weeks than any other senator.

He shepherded to Senate passage a health reform bill that would guarantee workers the ability to take their health insurance with them when they switch jobs. And when the Republicans pushed to pass a bill to curb illegal immigration, it was Kennedy who successfully led the effort to block provisions that he and his fellow Democrats considered too harsh.

Kennedy's renaissance, which is helping to propel a new Democratic offensive after the Republican takeover left the party shellshocked, reflects no small amount of his own persistence and perspiration, colleagues and others close to him said.

With what he calls the "inspiration" of his wife, Vicki, whom he married in 1992, he launched into a new routine this year: going to bed early, eating better and waking (without an alarm) at 6 to take on the treadmill.

"Basically I'm sort of back in shape or getting there," Kennedy said. He balks at revealing how many pounds he has shed, saying only: "Enough for now, but we've still got a ways to go. We're on schedule."

The impact on his work has been considerable. "I think I'm more alert and able to put in long days and be more effective," the 64-year-old senator said.

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Kennedy's resurgence is all the more remarkable given how low he had sunk at the outset of his hotly contested 1994 campaign.

Then, his very tenure in the Senate was threatened. Overweight and under-performing, he seemed to epitomize the political careerism that had become the object of many voters' frustration with Washington. Making matters worse, his image had been tarnished by his entanglement in the Palm Beach rape trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith (who was acquitted).

Despite his reelection in 1994, Kennedy remained puffy and perilously out of shape. But recently the excess flesh has melted off his face, revealing again the famous Kennedy jawline. His suits, which strained to contain his bulk last autumn, fit again. His coloring, which turned a sickly crimson during heated debates last year, has toned down several shades.

Sitting in a maroon wingback chair in his Capitol Hill office, Kennedy self-consciously described his struggle with the scales--the consumption of "too much ice cream, doughnuts and that sort of thing" during the 1994 campaign.

"He knows he's at the top of his game," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). "He's doing what he truly believes in and he's having fun doing it. He's jocular and relaxed, and physically I think he's feeling better. I think those changes reflect the influence his wife, Vicki, has had on him."

Kennedy's personal renewal has contributed to a resurgence of Senate Democrats, who lost their majority in the 1994 elections and seemed bewildered and impotent through much of 1995.

This year, by putting forward a legislative agenda designed to address the economic insecurities that emerged as a key issue in the Republican primaries, Democrats have managed to gain momentum for the first time in more than a year. And Kennedy, as much as anyone, is leading the charge.

His friends and rivals agree that the insecurity issue, which maverick Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan exploited during the primary election season, plays to Kennedy's strengths. For decades he has been crafting legislative remedies for working peoples' anxieties about health care, education, job security and pensions.

"The elevation of these issues and the fact that the Republican campaign for the presidency is in the forum of the United States Senate has heightened the interest in and the focus on these issues," Kennedy said. "That works to our advantage."

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