NEW BEDFORD, Mass. -- When Republican Gov. William F. Weld arrived here the other day to open a Senate campaign office, Joe Dunleavy -- "72 years of age and always a Democrat" -- slipped into the back of the room.
"He's such a hot ticket, I had to take a look at him," Dunleavy explained. "He's a corker, a real corker."
There are enough Massachusetts Democrats beguiled by Weld to have elected him twice to the governorship. The question now is whether there are enough of them to carry him to the Senate over a popular Democratic incumbent, John Kerry.
Politics is a contact sport in Massachusetts, and this is a contest between two political heavyweights -- "a real doozer" in the vernacular. Both candidates enjoy high approval ratings from their constituents, both have substantial records of accomplishments they can claim legitimately, and both are tough and ambitious.
Indeed, it would be no surprise if the winner Nov. 5 blossoms into a presidential candidate four years from now. Both are clearly interested.
For the moment, the stakes are highest in terms of who controls the Senate. Assuming that Vice President Al Gore is re-elected, the Democrats need a net gain of three seats, a goal that seems distant and probably unreachable if an incumbent like Kerry loses.
The most recent published opinion polls show the contest essentially even, with perhaps a slim edge to Kerry. And the conventional wisdom is that Kerry will ultimately triumph as Democrats "come home" to one of their own, just as they did when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy seemed menaced by his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, two years ago.
"It's tight," said Boston Mayor Tom M. Menino, "but he'll [Kerry] win in the end."
A Democratic consultant who requested anonymity drew this distinction: "Kerry wants it more, and that's why he's going to win, because it's his life. Weld -- he's never had a bad half-hour in his life. Everything comes easy to him. He doesn't want it as bad as Kerry."
The two candidates are almost universally known in the state. They agreed on a spending limit of $5 million each, so there is no money edge. They also agreed to eight televised debates, five of which have been held.
But Kerry enjoys several institutional advantages, including a 3-to-1 Democratic edge in voter registration, and the support of most unions and community groups that are effective in turning out their vote. He also can expect whatever benefit accrues from running with President Clinton, who is at least 20 points ahead of Bob Dole in the state. In addition, Weld faces the prospect of some Republican defections to independent Susan Gallagher, a conservative who is capable of drawing 5 percent of the voters.
But Weld has used the governor's office to good advantage, while Kerry has been mired in the Senate throughout the summer.
"It's been more difficult running against a governor than I imagined," said Kerry, 52, who is running for a third term. "The worst damned thing is being stuck down there while he runs around being Mr. Nice Guy."
Weld, 51, has been popping up all over with bag of state goodies for a mayor or sheriff. And he has shown the personal flair to connect with the Joe Dunleavys of the world who don't mind a little wise guy in a political leader.
The Republican governor's best moment -- as far as capturing the cameras and the popular imagination -- was when he culminated the signing of a bill to protect rivers by diving into the Charles River fully clothed to demonstrate the seriousness of his commitment to cleaning up the environment. The pictures of his dive and his emergence from the water, grinning broadly, were, even some Kerry strategists concede, political gold.
Weld also exploited the opportunity handed to him at the Republican convention in San Diego, when he was barred from xTC speaking role because he supports abortion rights.
Weld played the role of bemused martyr to the hilt for the benefit of the Massachusetts press and television cameras -- and for the social moderates who make up most of the state's 40 percent independent voters.
Kerry has countered Weld's skill in playing to the cameras with his own ploys. In one debate, he assured himself a sound bite on the news when he told Weld, "Governor, you switch positions faster than your friend Dick Morris" -- a double-entendre jab at the one-time Weld adviser who was brought down by a sex scandal last month while serving as Clinton's chief political strategist.
In fact, no obvious watershed issues have emerged in the campaign. From the outset, Weld has stressed three topics -- taxes, welfare and crime -- on which he has depicted Kerry as being out of touch with his constituents.
And he has sought to blur the issue of party. "This is not a fight between Democrats and Republicans," he said here, "but between Massachusetts and Washington. We want to change the political culture in Massachusetts in the direction of common sense, but Washington is often an obstacle to what we're doing here."
Weld has made a particular point of Kerry's support for federal programs that provide cash benefits for drug addicts and alcoholics. Kerry, a decorated war hero who came to prominence as the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, replies that he won't deny such benefits to veterans who returned to civilian life with an addiction acquired while on duty.
But Kerry's most effective response to the Weld effort to depict the senator as another soft-headed, old-fashioned Democrat came the other day when he won the endorsement of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, which usually backs Republicans and gave Bush a pronounced lift in the state eight years ago.
"The difference between me and the governor," Kerry says repeatedly, "is that I'm for cutting taxes for the working people. The fight is about who's on the side of the working people." Watch out, he says, for Weld's "flimflam artistry."
Meanwhile, Weld projects the picture of a politician who enjoys the game for its own sake, even if it involves diving into the Charles River with his chinos on.
Pub Date: 9/30/96