Kennedy's Punches Were Too Much for Romney's Glass Chin

News Analysis

The unthinkable did not happen.

Facing what many observers said was his closest race ever, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 used his clout and his last name to handily defeat political newcomer W. Mitt Romney last night.

Six weeks ago, after an easy primary, Romney was dead even with Kennedy, and the race had attracted national attention. The Republican party, soaring with the strong showing of GOP entrepreneur Romney, focused its fundraising on the race in an effort to defeat the liberal stalwart.

But as soon as the race tightened, Kennedy began to slowly put on his fighting gloves, and that was all it took to expose Romney's glass chin.

Kennedy began his comeback with a series of negative television advertisements which attacked the business record of the 47-year-old venture capitalist from Belmont.

"Sen. Kennedy made a decision and his staff made a decision at the time of the primary that they were going to go very hard against Mitt Romney and significantly raise questions about aspects of his business dealings," said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at UMass-Boston.

"[The Romney campaign] was both surprised and unprepared for the fact that someone would raise serious questions about his business back-ground that they thought was wholly positive," Watanabe said.

Romney, the former CEO of venture-capital firm Bain Capital, was put on the defensive by a Kennedy ad which said that a Bain Capital-owned company laid off hundreds of workers at an Indiana plant and then rehired them at a lower wage and without health care benefits.

The fired workers came to Massachusetts during October and created a public relations nightmare for the Romney campaign by hounding its candidate.

Last night, the Romney campaign admitted that it should have been quicker to respond to the barrage of negative attacks launched by its rival.

"The campaign stalled on a few issues...when [the Indiana firm] came to town we had to address them," said Eric Rzepka, information consultant for the Romney campaign.

Romney said last night that the momentum he generated after easily winning the Republican nomination in the primary was halted by the constant negative attacks by his opponent.

"I wish I had been able to defend more effectively against some of those attack ads," Romney said.

"As you know," he added, "the strikers were from a company that I was not associated with."

Romney not only faced Kennedy's attack ads but also had to counter the Kennedy legacy in Massachusetts. In the end, the name proved too strong for the Romney campaign.

"Taking on Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts is not the easiest thing to do in the world," Romney political consultant Charlie Manning said last night.

"This is Massachusetts, there is an emotional attachment to Sen. Kennedy and the Kennedy family and that is very hard to beat," said William B. Vernon, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party.

Although Romney did not say he was going to run again for the Senate in 1996 against incumbent John F. Kerry, a second Romney campaign would have factors in its favor: statewide recognition and no famous last name to run against.

"Mitt is a formidable candidate and one who will be a better candidate in the future," Vernon said.

But if Romney decides to challenge Kerry, he will not be a political new-comer anymore, a prospect which could hurt him in two years.

"Romney will be more exposed to the public view and if he were to run, voters are going to ask 'what did you do for the last two years?,'" said former Cambridge mayor Alice K. Wolf. "He won't be fresh anymore.... people will expect you to produce."

But if Romney recovers financially from this race (he spent $2 million of his own money), if he refines his message, and if he can effectively defend his business record, then he has a good shot of unseating the Bay State's junior senator.

Mitt may happen in '96.