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Joe Kennedy Will Abandon '98 Gubernatorial Campaign

By Blaine Harden
The Washington Post
BOSTON

Conceding that personal and family problems have crippled his candidacy, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, D-Mass., announced here Thursday that he is abandoning his long-planned run for governor of Massachusetts.

The five-term congressman, the eldest son of Robert F. Kennedy, had been regarded until last spring as all-but unbeatable in next year's gubernatorial election. But messy publicity about the annulment of his first marriage, the alleged affair of his brother Michael with a teen-age babysitter and stories of his playing with illegal fireworks that burned his 16-year-old son have combined this year to smudge the image of the heir apparent to the Kennedy dynasty.

Standing beside his second wife, Beth, and surrounded by members of his staff, many of whom were weeping, Kennedy explained in a VFW hall in a working-class corner of Boston that he believed he would never be able to focus his candidacy on issues.

"The race will focus on personal or family questions. It is not fair to my family, it is not fair to the people of Massachusetts and it is not the right thing to do," said Kennedy, who appeared tan and rested from a vacation on Cape Cod, where he said that he had decided to give up a candidacy that has been in the works for eight months.

The Kennedys have faced scandals before, but have always been able to return home to Massachusetts and win. Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has been elected seven times despite questions surrounding the 1969 drowning of a young woman at Chappaquiddick, a divorce and stories about drinking and womanizing.

But the scandals swirling around Joe and Michael Kennedy this spring and summer were sufficient to alienate a growing number of voters and crack one of the long-time bulwarks of the Kennedy clan - the solid wall of mutual support among family members. Early this month John F. Kennedy, Jr., the son of the late president, wrote in the pages of his magazine "George" that his cousins Joe and Michael are "poster boys for bad behavior."

Polls here have shown Kennedy to be in considerable trouble, both against Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, his main opponent for the Democratic nomination for governor, as well against the two main Republican contenders, Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci and state Treasurer Joe Malone.

Kennedy said his decision was based on what is best for his family and the state, not on the polls. But he acknowledged that the polls did not look good.

"We have done polls as I'm sure others have done polls. And honestly, I think there's been a great deal of damage in the last six or eight months in terms of the kind of publicity that's been brought up," said Kennedy. He added that he will run next year for re-election to Congress and analysts said he is likely to win.

Polls in July conducted for the Massachusetts Democratic Party showed Kennedy trailing far behind Harshbarger on questions concerning judgment and character. One question asked Democratic voters which candidate is "solid, smart and uses common sense." Harshbarger got a 72 percent positive response; Kennedy got 24 percent.

"This candidacy was based almost entirely on him being Joe Kennedy, a member of the Kennedy clan," said Democratic political consultant Michael Shea. "There was never a powerful rational presented for why he should be governor. All of the news this year about Joe has brought up the maturity question, as well as the old questions about the Kennedys and women. For Joe, it is sort of live by the name, die by the name."

The avalanche of bad personal news that triggered Kennedy's announcement began building in March when the congressman's first wife, Sheila Rauch Kennedy, published a book that accused Joe of calling her a "nobody" and of bullying her into an annulment. Kennedy felt compelled by bad publicity to make a public apology."

The focus of the story soon shifted to what Joe Kennedy knew about the affair and what he did or did not do to stop it. No hard evidence about the congressman's knowledge of the matter ever surfaced, but the story became such an embarrassment that for several weeks Kennedy hid from the press in his home state.

This year's star-crossed chronicle of Kennedy news played into what seems to be a changing view among Massachusetts' voters toward the entire family, according to several political analysts here.