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Kennedy Takes Aim

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) suggested on Tuesday that Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) will fall short in the presidential sweepstakes, leading to a slew of Congressional endorsements for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Kennedy’s blunt assessment of the presidential race at this point came as he sought to explain why Kerry has not yet won a large block of Congressional endorsements.

Kennedy, the highest-profile Congressional backer of his home state colleague’s presidential campaign, said House Democrats feel a deep sense of loyalty to Gephardt, the House Democratic leader for eight years until ceding that post this year.

“We have had a meeting and the House Members are trying to work, our Massachusetts group [is] working [colleagues], but a lot of them are pulling toward Gephardt,” Kennedy said at a meeting with Roll Call reporters and editors. “But I think after Gephardt moves on out, I think John is going to be in a strong position.”

So far, only three House Democrats have publicly pledged to support Kerry: Reps. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.), Juanita Millender-McDonald (Calif.) and Adam Smith (Wash.). While not one of Massachusetts’ 10 Democratic House Members has officially endorsed Kerry yet, it is understood that they will eventually get behind their Massachusetts colleague in a public show of support.

“As far as I know, everybody is supporting him and we are talking to our colleagues to try to do the same,” said a Massachusetts Member, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Even though many observers of the process, including Kennedy himself, acknowledge that the importance of Congressional endorsements is overstated, his pointed analysis of Gephardt’s chances of gaining the nomination illustrates that the rival campaigns can overlook no aspect of what is essentially a zero-sum game.

Each campaign is investing resources, financial and otherwise, into the mini-primaries that include securing important endorsements, raising enough money to be seen as not falling behind and advancing policy positions that will be embraced by Democratic activists — all building blocks seen as necessary for winning the Democratic nomination.

Indeed, Gephardt is not taking the Congressional endorsement game lightly. He unveiled an endorsement list of 30 House Democrats last month that included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and even Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), Sen. Kennedy’s son.

A senior Gephardt presidential aide shook off Kennedy’s remark.

“I assume Senator Kennedy meant that, following President Gephardt’s second term, Senator Kerry will be in a strong position with House Democrats in the 2012 race,” said Erik Smith, the Missouri Democrat’s spokesman.

But the support of Rep. Kennedy’s father is arguably the most significant endorsement any of the presidential candidates have received to date. While many Capitol Hill insiders thought Kennedy would back Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) for the Democratic nomination, Massachusetts’ senior Senator put those rumors to rest in January.

Now, Kennedy is wasting no time in touting Kerry as the leading presidential candidate, and goes to great lengths to highlight the junior Bay State Senator’s foreign relations credentials.

“I think he has sort of broken out of the pack,” Kennedy said. “I think he will be able to go toe-to-toe on issues of defense and security. He is comfortable with those issues.”

Behind the scenes, Kennedy is acting as a policy and political adviser to his colleague with whom he said he shares “a strong personal relationship and a very good professional relationship.”

“I will do anything John asks,” he said. “We talk to him about health care policy and some of the other issues.”

Kennedy said he is also talking up Kerry to his Senate colleagues. So far, only three other Senators have publicly endorsed a presidential candidate: Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is supporting Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), while Vermont Sens. Jim Jeffords (I) and Patrick Leahy (D) have endorsed former Green Mountain State Gov. Howard Dean.

Outside the Capitol, Kennedy said he plans to play a visible role in the Kerry campaign, serving as a surrogate speaker and helping to raise the money needed to run a competitive primary effort. But Kennedy is careful not to appear as though he has a great deal of influence over Kerry.

“I think it is very important and he believes it is very important for him to get out and establish himself, and I think he has,” Kennedy said. “He is his own candidate, and I think people understand that.”

Kennedy, meanwhile, dismissed the suggestion that Republicans are eager to take on Kerry in a general election — especially since the Democratic National Convention will be in Boston — in order to tie the candidate to the liberal policies espoused by Kennedy and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.

“The fact is, today, with the power of the media, it doesn’t barely make much difference where you come from,” Kennedy said. “The media and the exposure that candidates are going to get is going to be so extraordinary and intense over that period of time.

“After the first two days they are not going to know whether he is from Boston or from Columbus, Ohio. It is going to be: What are the issues” dominating the campaign.

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