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Joan Vennochi

Playing the secret Kennedy card

By Joan Vennochi
September 17, 2009

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MICHAEL CAPUANO is no Ted Kennedy. But, still, some keepers of Camelot’s flame are ready to adopt him.

Gerard Doherty, a longtime Kennedy family intimate, ran Ted Kennedy’s first Senate campaign. Now he’s backing Capuano, the congressman from Somerville, because, said Doherty, “He’s a fighter . . . He’s committed to the healthcare thing . . . He doesn’t have to come up to speed.’’

Doherty’s endorsement foreshadows the big card Capuano hopes to play - support from Kennedy insiders and maybe even a dramatically timed endorsement from Ted Kennedy’s nephew, Joe, who preceded Capuano as congressman from the Eighth District.

As he prepares to formally announce his candidacy, Capuano is starting to outline his case against his chief opponent, Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Like Ted Kennedy, Capuano endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, choosing hope and change over experience in the 2008 presidential campaign. But in this race, he will argue that time in Washington matters and his experience as a legislator outweighs Coakley’s experience as a prosecutor. “What’s she done about the Iraq war? What has she said about health care? I couldn’t tell you,’’ he declared recently.

In her announcement speech, Coakley talked about the need to embrace Kennedy’s agenda. “No one can fill his shoes, but we must strive to follow in his footsteps,’’ she said. Capuano will argue that he already has a record that mirrors Kennedy’s and is ready to advance it.

He voted against the invasion of Iraq and the Patriot Act. He is also a strong advocate for the so-called public option in health care reform.

Capuano already proved his fealty to the Kennedy family, by holding back on a decision about running until Joe Kennedy made his decision not to run. Coakley boldly entered the race, a move that showcased her independence but also risked offending the Kennedys.

Sentiment for the Kennedy legacy should play some role in the final outcome of this special election.

How much is an open question.

Massachusetts grieved openly for Ted Kennedy on live television. Thousands stood in line at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library to pay their respects to the last Kennedy brother. That does not necessarily translate into automatic support for Capuano, a former mayor of Somerville, who is known more for his closeness to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi than for any Kennedy connection.

Voters may look at Capuano and see a gritty fighter who stands passionately on the same side of the issues as Kennedy. Or they might see an entrenched incumbent, who once took a $19,000 trip with his wife to Brazil that was swarming with lobbyists and underwritten by a nonprofit business group.

Capuano will try to sell himself as the experienced Washington insider who already knows how to fight on behalf of Bay State economic interests. But voters may recognize someone who knows how to fight for his own interests, too. He is the recipient of tens of thousands in campaign contributions from a defense lobbyist firm, The PMA Group, whose ties to Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha are being looked at by federal investigators. Capuano was one of more than 100 House members who secured earmarks for clients of The PMA Group in Department of Defense budget appropriations. It’s old-school politics versus the “new standard of excellence’’ Coakley is promising.

Female voters may also hear a bit of patronizing in Capuano’s recent description of Coakley as a “blank slate.’’

In the compressed time period of this Senate race, there is less time to scrutinize any one of Kennedy’s would-be successors. On election day, the outcome is likely to come down to broadly-drawn and quickly-formed impressions.

No newcomer to the US Senate walks in with Kennedy’s clout. Who walks in with the most potential to keep Massachusetts and its interests at the center of the national debate, no matter what the issue?

Capuano will do everything he can to cast himself as the bearer of the Kennedy torch.

But without an actual Kennedy in the race, the keepers of Camelot’s flame can only do so much.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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