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Kennedy’s Senate Seat Up For Grabs

NATICK, Mass. - Shoppers at the big mall just off the turnpike here know they've got an unaccustomed addition to their holiday chores this year: a trip to the polls. When it comes to making a choice from the list of candidates for U.S. Senate, however, most haven't made a list, much less checked it twice.

"I haven't really even looked," confesses Kathy Saart, a Democrat, when asked whom she favors in Tuesday's primary. "I know I have to read up on it." Her sister, Linda Robinson, is stumped, too, but offers an excuse: "I tend to vote Republican, and they don't have a chance in this state," she laughs.

Four Democrats and two Republicans are vying for their parties' nominations in a contest that will pick a successor to Sen. Edward Kennedy, who died of cancer in August.

The cast of characters includes a prosecutor hoping to become the state's first female senator, a co-owner of the Boston Celtics who has poured more than $5 million of his money into the race, and a Republican who once won Cosmopolitan magazine's "America's Sexiest Man" contest.

So far, however, the race to replace one of the Senate's best-known members has been a low-key affair. "I don't see that many signs around. I don't see bumper stickers," says Bruce Wallin, a political science professor at Boston's Northeastern University.

The general election will be Jan. 19, meaning the campaign will continue through the holidays. "This is not something you want to do in Massachusetts in the middle of winter," Secretary of State Bill Galvin says.

The end result: an election that's difficult to predict because no one knows who will turn out to vote. Andrew Smith, a University of New Hampshire political scientist who has been polling the race for The Boston Globe, says his surveys are pointing to a turnout of about 25 percent, "and that's probably a little high."

Democratic candidates are convinced that the winner of their party's primary Tuesday will be the next senator from Massachusetts. "We will not elect a Republican to fill Ted Kennedy's seat," Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., says. "Bet the house on it."

Recent polls have shown Capuano, whose district includes parts of Boston, narrowing the once-wide lead of state Attorney General Martha Coakley. Coakley was the first candidate to enter the race, and she's the only one who has won a statewide election.

Hoping to score an upset: Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, a self-made millionaire who says "it's time for me to give back," and Alan Khazei, co-founder of the volunteer program City Year.

Khazei boasts big-name donors, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and "Star Trek" actor Leonard Nimoy. "If I've got Spock on my side, I can't fail," Khazei quips. Caroline Kennedy, the senator's niece and daughter of President Kennedy, attended a fundraiser in New York for Khazei. Other members of the Kennedy family have maintained neutrality in the race.

Paul Kirk, a Democrat who was named interim senator by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, is not running.

The biggest disagreement among the Democratic contenders: which of them would be the most reliably liberal heir to Kennedy's mantle. In recent debates, all have said they oppose President Barack Obama's Afghanistan plan. "The lessons of Vietnam are very important here," Coakley says.

All favor the Democratic health care legislation, a signature issue of Kennedy's, though they differ on how much they are willing to compromise to get a bill.

Pagliuca accused his rivals of exaggerating the potential impact of abortion restrictions written into the House-passed version of the bill, saying they are no more credible than Republicans who charge that the legislation will create "death panels" to ration care for the elderly. "You're going to be the Sarah Palin of the Democratic Party," Pagliuca told Capuano after the congressman said he wouldn't back a health care bill that doesn't provide some coverage for abortions.

The candidate in the race with rugged good looks and a glamorous family of high achievers is not named Kennedy and is not a Democrat. State Sen. Scott Brown, who put himself through law school with money he earned as a model after he won Cosmo's "Sexiest Man" title at 22, says the Democrats are "so far left of the mainstream" that it will create an opening for him, even in a state that hasn't elected a GOP senator since 1972.

Brown's wife, Gail, is a Boston television reporter; Ayla, one of the couple's two daughters, is a Boston College basketball star and aspiring recording artist who appeared on "American Idol."

The state's major GOP players back Brown, who has drawn a primary opponent: Jack Robinson, a self-financed candidate who has unsuccessfully run for Senate, secretary of State and Congress. Robinson vows to "shock the establishment" but acknowledges "it's difficult to get people to focus."

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